Staff Columnist

This isn't the plan we voted for, governor

The senate chambers are seen at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The senate chambers are seen at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Well, at least “bait and switch” sounds like outdoor recreation.

Because that’s what those of us who voted in 2010 to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund may be getting. What we expected was an eventual sales tax increase that would provide $180 million to $200 million in brand-new dollars annually for water quality efforts, parks, trails, etc. We’ve been expecting it for a decade. We’ve been so patient.

We had it in writing. A state law setting out how the money would be spent says trust fund bucks “shall supplement and not replace” dollars already being spent on natural resources and outdoor recreation.

But Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ big trust fund-filling, tax-cutting Invest in Iowa plan erases that language. And according to an analysis from the Iowa Policy Project, only about $82.4 million flowing into the trust fund annually under Reynolds’ revised formula will go toward new environmental spending. Another $88.8 million will simply cover spending on existing programs shifted into the fund.

For example, the trust fund will provide $17.1 million for the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, or REAP, but that includes $12 million currently allocated to the program. A big chunk of water quality spending simply replaces a funding package for voluntary farm-based projects approved two years ago. There’s far less new money allocated in every funding category in Reynolds’ plan than is promised under the spending plan Iowans voted for in 2010.

And although Reynolds raises the sales and use tax to fill the fund, she siphons off the use tax, which is applied to products bought elsewhere and used in Iowa. According to the policy project, that takes as much as $31 million from the trust fund.

So what should have been a $202 million pot of new dollars to address environmental problems, conservation efforts and expanded outdoor recreation is a $171 million fund. And less than half of the money will go for new spending, according to the policy project’s analysis.

The policy project’s report is simply the first attempt to crunch the numbers. The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency has yet to weigh in with its analysis. A lot of numbers are flying around under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

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But no matter how the bucks add up, the fact remains Iowa has a multibillion dollar dirty water problem. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Shorting the trust fund blunts its already limited ability to make a meaningful dent in that massive problem.

But Reynolds would rather cut taxes. Her plan cuts income taxes, again, and uses sales tax dollars to cover county mental health spending, potentially reducing property taxes.

Raising the sales tax to clean up water has always been a tough sell, considering that most of the pollutants running into waterways come from farms, and most farm inputs are exempt from sales taxes. But the answer to critics has always been, “This is what voters wanted.”

Now, we’re not even really getting what we voted for in 2010. And not only does it raise the sales tax, hitting low-income Iowans hardest, it cuts income and property taxes, tipping the tax balance toward higher income earners. The sell just got a lot tougher.

And, no surprise, lawmakers in both parties seem less than enthusiastic. Rod Boshart’s article in last Sunday’s Gazette chronicled misgivings on the part of numerous key lawmakers. Surveying coverage of legislative forums across the state last weekend finds few legislators willing to support the bill, or even predict it will be debated.

”I just don’t know that the legislature has time to get this bill ironed out,” said Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, according to the Fort Dodge Messenger.

Invest in Iowa is complicated, and gives just about everyone something to oppose. What’s far simpler is what we approved in 2010, the creation of a fund to provide new, increased funding for environmental protection, natural resources conservation and enhanced outdoor recreation. New money, not a tangle of horse-trades, funding shifts and tax swaps.

Stop making this so difficult. Just give Iowans what we wanted.

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

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