What’s the end game for conservation funding in Iowa?
Here’s a look at the forces at work in Iowa’s seemingly endless clean water debate.
At its annual policy conference in August, the Iowa Corn Growers Association joined the Iowa Soybean Association in supporting Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWLL), a sales tax increase that would provide in excess of $150 million annually to environmental protection and natural resources in Iowa.
The excitement in the room was intense; I’m quite certain:
Official support for IWLL from both the corn and soybean organizations is significant because a bill in this year’s legislative session to enact the tax increase, SSB1272 (succeeded by SF504), drew opposition from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s agribusiness lobbying powerhouse.
While it received very little attention in the media, this action by the Corn Growers — just maybe — is a sign that something is changing in a good way for clean water in Iowa.
Even if not, at least the Corn Growers’ decision presents a good opportunity to look at what’s going on as Iowa struggles for better conservation performance of its globally significant soil and water resources.
Corn joins others supporting of Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy
It’s hard not to wonder if the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit concerning runoff pollution is pushing agricultural groups to support the conservation funding initiative. Agriculture groups’ staunch opposition to the lawsuit, filed against drainage districts in 3 Northwest Iowa counties, paired with their support of Iowa’s all-voluntary strategy to reduce water pollution, makes opposing new state conservation spending an odd choice.
That’s because Iowa’s strategy for reducing runoff pollution brings with it an a price tag estimated at many millions to over a billion dollars each year. That money has to come from somewhere — and agriculture groups don’t seem inclined to pay.
In fact, the Corn Growers’ official policy book makes their feelings on who should bear the cost of environmental protection clear:
We believe the public should pay for any public environmental demands or regulations placed on private land when the regulations create a loss of income or require a cost for capital improvements to make those changes.
In addition, supporting the conservation sales tax increase would bolster agriculture’s argument that Iowa’s all-voluntary strategy needs time to work, and therefore any attempt at additional regulation is premature — or unneeded altogether.
That’s a troubling idea for those who believe mandatory conservation practices should be extended to get water quality problems under control.
The left flank of Iowa’s environmental community is already expressing alarm at this idea. Hugh Espey, head of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, recently labeled the sales tax increase “bad public policy.” He argues it shifts the costs of pollution cleanup from the industry responsible to taxpayers.
He has a point, but for many decades Iowa taxpayers have contributed to cost-share programs that offer public funds to support desired conservation action on private lands. There’s no reason to believe this policy arrangement will go away, or that it should.
The reality is also that any firm steps toward additional regulation of agricultural runoff appear years off — of course, unless litigation like the Water Works case upends the timeline.
For their part, while agriculture groups have edged toward IWLL, it is unclear how strongly they will express support in the legislature. While after last year’s gas tax increase it is now clear how strongly political forces can align to push an increase through the legislature, that effort was years in the making and still took a heavy lift.
Even in simply expressing their support, the Corn Growers appear to have left room to maneuver. Here are two of the conservation-related policy planks they adopted this year:
24. If a sales tax increase is passed, at least 60% of the funds from the 3/8 cent increase should be appropriated for additional soil and water conservation practices. (2016)
25. ICGA supports a sales tax increase for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund if there are funds made available to implement practices on a voluntary basis on agricultural land to improve water quality. (2016)
The Corn Growers’ 60% funding threshold for conservation practices (in #24, above) is noteworthy because it doesn’t appear to be based on the current proposed formula for distributing IWLL funds. Whether the current IWLL formula really meets the Corn Growers’ threshold is unclear.
Agriculture’s position on new funding also stayed muddy in a new Des Moines Register piece by Donnelle Eller that said agriculture leaders like Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey are looking at a water quality credit trading program pilot as a new funding option.
Even if agriculture groups fully embrace IWLL, it still faces headwinds as Governor Branstad’s support for conservation funding is deeply in doubt after he used his veto power to slash millions in conservation dollars from the state budget in 2014, including funds supported by agriculture groups and fellow Republican Secretary Northey.
As things stand, despite some momentum late in the session, legislation to raise the sales tax cleared a Senate committee but did not arrive on the floor for a vote. It remains viable for consideration in 2016 in the second session of the current General Assembly.
With all the complexity in this policy area and nearly 10 years of wear and tear on Iowa’s coalition to support conservation funding, it is easy to be pessimistic about the state’s conservation challenge. But recent events do offer another, more positive view of the situation.
Years of negotiation and setbacks are simply “what it takes”
to achieve major policy change in Iowa.
Governor Branstad himself said property tax reform he signed in 2014 — the so-called “largest tax cut in Iowa history” was “35 years in the making.”
And indeed, while last session’s gas tax hike stunned many observers of Iowa politics with its swift — borderline unprecedented — journey to final passage, it’s important to remember how one of the chief lobbyists working on the bill characterized his victory to the Des Moines Register:
David Scott, executive director of the Iowa Good Roads Association, a highway lobby group, said Wednesday that someone told him they couldn’t believe the House and Senate passed the gas tax bill in a mere span of three hours on Tuesday.
“I said, ‘It actually took 10 years and three hours because we have been working on this for 10 years,’ “ Scott said. He added that numerous studies have been conducted of Iowa’s road funding issues over the past decade, and all had pointed to a need for additional revenue.
It’s a surprisingly humble and realistic response. Making big policy change is just actually that hard.
And with Iowa’s continuing serious water quality problems, alongside the huge price tag needed to resolve them, forging ahead is not a choice, but a necessity.
FURTHER READING: Last year, I explained why conservation funding matters to me in the first place.