Staff Columnist

The race for Iowa's ag secretary gets dirty

Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Tim Gannon, the Democratic nominee for Iowa secretary of agriculture, stopped by our shop about a week ago.

We talked about how better controlling agricultural runoff would save and improve Iowa’s valuable soil. Conserved soil improves water quality by holding back fertilizer runoff. Soil conservation and water quality improvements also reduce flooding risks.

“I don’t have to tell anyone in Cedar Rapids that obviously we’re seeing more of these really crazy precipitation events,” Gannon said.

Nope. The locals are very well-informed.

Just this past week, another round of heavy rains raised the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids beyond flood stage and spawned some nervous hours. Doppler radar became must-see TV. Once again, the soggy city whistled past the flood plain, a deluge or two away from a very bad week.

Gannon understands how water and soil issues join rural and urban Iowa at the hip, as well as the wallet and the flooded basement. What happens to all that water falling on and running off from vast farmland directly affects cities such as Cedar Rapids. Conserving and improving soil helps not only farmers but urban manufacturers and the state’s economy. Conservation spending in rural areas is an important economic development tool also benefiting anyone who enjoys being outdoors.

So what’s a secretary of agriculture got to do with it? The secretary runs a single state department and is best known for being featured on gas pump stickers, right?

But in Iowa, the secretary of agriculture is effectively the Dirt Czar, someone who will oversee multiple conservation programs and can credibly lobby on the farm, in cities and at the Statehouse for an expanded commitment. Whoever gets elected secretary in November promises to be an important figure in whatever happens next on water quality and related environmental issues.

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“Farmers are already spending money on conservation, maybe not as much this year because of the farm economy,” said Gannon, who lives in Des Moines but still works on his family’s century farm near Mingo. “But if we see there’s a long-term, significant, dedicated funding source from the state of Iowa and federal government, that’s going get them to plan a little longer, take a longer-term look at how they can care for their soil.”

This is where Gannon and his Republican opponent, current Sec. of Agriculture Mike Naig, disagree on the best path forward.

Gannon favors raising the state sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fund the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The tax increase would raise upward of $180 million annually, with 60 percent of the funding potentially available for ag-based water quality measures.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 creating the protected fund, but Statehouse leaders have declined to pass a tax increase to fill it. So it sits empty, even as polls show Iowans want it filled.

“I don’t believe they voted to create something that wouldn’t do what they wanted to see done,” Gannon said. “People voted for clean water, healthy soil and outdoor recreation, and nothing has happened in the last eight years to lead them to think their vote mattered.”

Naig opposes filling the fund, opting instead to stick with a bill passed this year steering gambling dollars and proceeds from a tax on metered water into various conservation efforts over the next dozen or so years. It will invest a fraction of the bucks that could be raised by the sales tax.

Like his predecessor, Bill Northey, Naig doesn’t think Iowa voters who created the fund necessarily want a tax increase to fill it.

“I like where we’re at today,” Naig told me this spring when asked about the sales tax.

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Today, we’ve got farmers who are implementing conservation practices, but not nearly enough to significantly move the statewide needle on controlling runoff and pollution. The bill Naig champions will provide more resources, but not enough to dent a multibillion dollar problem.

It will count projects and likely spawn positive press releases, but requires no testing to see if those measures actually are cleaning up water. It has no bench marks for measuring success. It was backed primarily by large agricultural interests, such as the Farm Bureau.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say to taxpayers, OK we want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in state money into this effort and not show what they’re getting for their money,” Gannon said. “We’re not going to spend money just for the sake of spending money. We need to make sure the resources we put into this are targeted for success.”

Gannon would stick with a voluntary approach to farm conservation, arguing that once the state steps in with more dollars and a permanent commitment, more farmers will sign up. He also would boost the state’s investment in agricultural research with an emphasis on convincing farmers of the economic benefits of soil and water conservation measures.

“If you get the ball rolling, the momentum starts to take over,” Gannon said.

I think, five or 10 years down the road, if more robust voluntary efforts don’t move the needle, farmers and landowners should be pushed to get with the program, specifically a water quality program tailored to their farm. Gannon wasn’t willing to go there.

But at least he’s willing to listen to Iowa voters, and reject the notion we voted for a fund but want it to sit empty. He understands we need to do more to address these issues, and with a sense of urgency. And he’s not happy where we’re at today.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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