Staff Columnist

Take a magnifying glass to Gov. Kim Reynolds' trust fund plan

The president of the senate's bench is seen in the senate chambers at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 1
The president of the senate’s bench is seen in the senate chambers at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

After a decade of lobbying Statehouse leaders to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund, some cracks have emerged in the Iowa Water and Land Legacy coalition.

The coalition’s executive council, made up of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, the Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards and the American Heart Association have all signed on to support Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Invest in Iowa Act, which raises the sales tax to fill the fund. The committee hired lobbyists from the Des Moines office of Cornerstone Government Affairs, a national political consulting firm, to push for the bill.

But not everyone is on board. A list of more than 30 groups that made up the coalition has disappeared from IWILL’s website. At least one coalition member, the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, has registered in opposition to the bill. Others, including the Iowa Environmental Council, are listed as undecided.

Supporters talk about Reynolds’ plan in broad strokes, noting how it will, at last, fill the fund created by voters through a constitutional amendment in 2010. Statehouse leaders, until now, have refused to seriously consider raising the sales tax to fill it.

“We’re just looking at the deal in front of is. That’s as simple as it is. It’s time to fund this,” said Joe McGovern, who leads the Natural Heritage Foundation. “We’re looking at this as a good deal for conservation.”

Those opposed and undecided are digging into the details, and they’re finding devils.

“There are some gotchas. You really need to look at it with a magnifying glass,” said Pam Mackey-Taylor lobbyist and director of the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter.

“In essence, this bill needs serious revisions,” Mackey-Taylor said.

Groups opposed and on the fence cite similar concerns about the bill.

For starters, as has been explained in this space previously, the bill provides far less new funding for natural resources and outdoor recreation than voters anticipated under the original trust fund plan. Of the $171 million flowing into the fund from the sales tax, more than half of it under Reynolds’ bill will fund existing environmental and recreation programs. The trust fund was supposed to augment existing funding, not simply replace it.

Virtually all water quality spending in the bill is directed toward meeting the broad goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a plan aimed at reducing polluted runoff flowing from farmland. The NRS sets the long-term goal of reducing nitrate and phosphorus runoff by 45 percent over time, but sets no other targets or bench marks, is strictly voluntary, and requires no monitoring to measure success.

Nutrient runoff is a big problem, but it’s not the only water quality problem in Iowa, where lakes and other water bodies are marred by bacteria and other toxins. Limiting spending to the NRS shortchanges those other issues.

Water quality is not the only place the bill is ridiculously prescriptive. It requires that all outdoor recreation projects funded by the trust fund be evaluated and scored by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, not by staff who know outdoor recreation in the Department of Natural Resources. It limits the definition of “recreational purpose” to a prescribed list of outdoor activities, potentially excluding others.

The bill requires that projects seeking to enhance existing parks and recreation areas will be given preference over projects that expand or create new natural areas, and it puts new restrictions on funding recreational trails. Both are nods to the Iowa Farm Bureau’s obsession with stopping the expansion of public lands by any means necessary.

The bill also allows custodial agencies handling fund dollars to, through rule making, keep information on who gets funding confidential.

Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, holds out hope that changes to the bill are possible. Her group is registered undecided while pushing for revisions.

“We have been working for a long time to get the trust fund filled. We definitely want to be in favor of this bill,” Gronstal Anderson said.

I get it. And I understand why the top IWILL leadership is willing to sign on. It’s been a decade of waiting and they want the trust fund faucet turned on, now. At the Statehouse sausage factory, you often have to take what you can get. There still will be new money for conservation and recreation. And if this fails, who knows when the next chance comes?

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But this is a deeply flawed bill, folks. Every time I read it, I find new problems. It’s overly prescriptive, overly deferential to the demands of large agricultural interests and dramatically alters the plan supported by voters. Its lack of new environmental bucks and tight limits on how they can be spent will blunt its ability to improve water quality.

It measures outdoor recreation with an economic development yardstick and, yet, clamps down on funding trails, which clearly are economic assets to Iowa communities. It lays out rigid criteria for recreation spending but directs water quality dollars into programs that lack transparency and accountability.

Like Anderson Gronstal, I want to be in favor of a bill to fill the fund. But, unless there are revisions, this isn’t one I can back.

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

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