Staff Editorials

Branstad's water quality plan should start an important debate

Farmer's Creek in Jackson County, photographed in December 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Farmer's Creek in Jackson County, photographed in December 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Gov. Terry Branstad is making water quality funding a top legislative priority in 2016. For that, he deserves considerable credit, and we welcome him to the debate.

We’re less enthusiastic about his plan, which he is calling the “biggest and boldest” of his tenure.

Branstad would extend a current one-cent statewide sales tax for school infrastructure, set to expire in 2029, to 2049. But instead of schools getting every dollar raised by that penny, a portion of future sales tax growth would be spent for efforts to protect waterways from agricultural pollution.

According to the Department of Revenue, over the next 32 years, schools would receive nearly $21 billion from an extended tax, with an additional $4.7 billion going to water quality.

It’s an ingenious use of an existing funding source. But it also pits two critical public investments against one another. And it would run counter to verdicts rendered by Iowa voters.

Iowa has a statewide sales tax for school infrastructure mainly because voters in all 99 counties approved local-option sales taxes for school building needs. Lawmakers converted those local pennies into a statewide tax in order to provide stable funding to address the state’s many aging school facilities.

That need has not diminished. The Cedar Rapids School District, for example, has aging facilities with upkeep and replacement needs far outstripping available revenues. School districts across the state have urged lawmakers to extend the tax.

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Iowa voters also, in 2010, overwhelmingly approved creation of the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. But lawmakers and Branstad have declined to deliver on a three-eights-cent sales tax increase to fill the fund.

The trust fund would seem to be the most obvious vehicle for clean water efforts, and several proposals have been floated from both parties to fill it. Its dollars would be constitutionally protected, unlike Branstad’s plan, which could be undone by a future Legislature.

Branstad’s proposal has flaws, but it also presents an opportunity. It’s a welcome opening bid to a substantive legislative debate over how to best address the state’s long list of impaired waterways and threats to drinking water in some communities.

What would be disappointing is if the governor takes a rigid approach and makes his initial plan a final offer. That would be a mistake, and a lost opportunity.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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