Staff Columnist

When Kim Reynolds says 'all of the stakeholders,' who is really at the table?

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a fundraiser hosted by the Iowa GOP at the Hughes Family Barn in southwest Cedar Rapids
Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a fundraiser hosted by the Iowa GOP at the Hughes Family Barn in southwest Cedar Rapids on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Gov. Kim Reynolds is working on it. But who is she listening to?

The “it” in this case is potential legislation raising the state sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The fund was created through a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2010, but sits empty thanks to skittish Statehouse types frightened by tax increases, even popular ones.

The fund could provide $170 million or more annually for water quality, conservation and outdoor recreation under a spending formula approved before the 2010 vote.

“We’re working on it,” Reynolds said in a Gazette story published last week. “We’re bringing all of the stakeholders to the table and we’re trying to have that conversation and trying to find out where we can find common ground and if there’s the appetite to move this forward.”

But what does “all of the stakeholders” mean? Reynolds didn’t say. I asked her spokesman, Pat Garrett, but received no response.

So we’re left to guess which interests are shaping landmark legislation that will affect every Iowan who buys stuff, and shape environmental protection in Iowa for decades to come. Don’t ask questions, Iowans. Just pay the tab.

And will our money be spent on the formula voters wanted, or will the Iowa Farm Bureau and other agriculture interests step in to rewrite the plan, taking money from recreation uses to instead bankroll voluntary farm-based water quality programs under the Department of Agriculture?

We already know big ag has the governor’s ear, as well as control of the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Commission and much of the Republican Legislature. No doubt they have some very comfy seats at the table. They bought them, after all.

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I reached out to some other stakeholders — several environmental groups that were at the table when the formula was first crafted and now would like to keep it. Are they at the table this time?

“No, the governor has not reached out to us,” said Pam Mackey Taylor, director of the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club.

“I don’t know specifically what stakeholder groups the governor was referring to, but we continue to talk to legislators and the governor about the importance of funding the trust,” said Kristin Aschenbrenner, state director for the Nature Conservancy.

“I really don’t know, when she talked about the stakeholders, who she was referring to. But I haven’t been in any of those types of meetings,” Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, said, referring to direct talks with Reynolds. The foundation has been meeting with key lawmakers on the issue.

“We haven’t met with them yet, but we have a meeting on the calendar for this month with her staff. And we’ve been meeting with other legislators and stakeholders as well,” said Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

In an email, Tom Hazleton, CEO of Iowa’s County Conservation System, said there have been “significant efforts and discussions” over the last five months, with his group at the table. But he could not provide me with “supplemental information at this time.”

So details are fuzzy. But one thing is certain. Always beware of big bills written at small tables behind large, closed doors.

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

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