Iowa's Constitutionally Protected Legacy

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye Feb. 24, 2017

In the 2010 General Election, 63 percent of Iowa voters passed a constitutional amendment to create
the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Once funded, the Trust would provide permanent, constitutionally protected money dedicated to clean water, productive soils, and vibrant wildlife habitats.

Yet the Trust Fund has yet to receive any money. Funding it requires a 3/8 cent sales tax increase which only the Legislature and Governor can enact. The Iowa Constitution does not allow a tax increase by referendum.

There is a large and growing coalition of Iowans demanding the legislature take action. The wide range of supporters represent both rural and urban areas and both sides of the political spectrum. The needs, they say, far outweigh the costs.

Iowa ranks near last nationally in water quality. Roughly half of Iowa’s rivers, lakes, and streams fail to meet water quality standards. Less than 10 percent of Iowa’s wetlands remain. Wetlands are critically important for flood prevention and wildlife habitat.

Iowa has lost more than 1.6 million acres of wildlife habitat in the past couple decades. The state is near last nationally in both conservation spending and the amount of available public land. Less than three percent of the state is publicly owned. Compare that to neighboring Missouri at 11.2 percent and Minnesota at 23.5 percent. Both of those states have voter-established sales tax revenue systems in place to support their conservation and outdoor recreation programs.

The foundation of Iowa’s economy is built on our ability to feed and fuel the world. Yet every year we send unsustainable amounts of nutrients and topsoil down our streams and rivers reducing our production capacity and toxifying not only our own water sources, but the Gulf of Mexico as well. In the last five years, more than 60 cities and towns in Iowa have struggled with high nitrate levels in their drinking water sources.

As of this writing, there were 961 job openings posted on the Iowa Workforce Development link on the website. Smaller communities such as ours are struggling to fill jobs while the state’s biggest metro areas can barely build fast enough to keep up with their population increases. The top six fastest growing counties in Iowa either contain large metropolitans or their suburbs.
Interestingly, voters in three of those counties have recently passed their own local bond referendums in the amounts of $30 million in Johnson County, $40 million in Linn County, and $50 million in Polk County. Those voter-established funds are to be used exclusively for natural resources and outdoor recreation programs in those counties.

In other words, the Iowa counties that are bucking the state’s “brain drain” trend are also investing the most in their natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities. And they are doing so not because they’re so flush with money, but because their citizens asked for it.

Iowan’s willingness to pay for what is important to them is not unique to Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines. Polling indicates that a strong majority of Iowans support funding the Trust. In fact, almost three-quarters of Iowans support funding the Trust if the sales tax increase was paired with reductions in other taxes.

Put in perspective, the three-eighths of a penny sales tax required to fund the Trust is equal to 75 cents added to a $200 taxable purchase. Yet it would generate up to $180 million annually for conservation and outdoor recreation programs in Iowa. Up to two-thirds of those dollars will be available for voluntary, non-regulatory, private land conservation projects outlined in the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Once the funding is in place, the Constitution prohibits the use of Trust Fund dollars for any other purposes beyond those for which it was established. The Constitution also requires spending from the Trust Fund be accountable through public reports and audits.

Years of research, public opinion polling and bipartisan legislative agreement established the current allocation formula which is currently written into state law under Chapter 461. That formula served as the basis for the public vote on the constitutional amendment that created the Trust. It distributes dollars largely through existing channels to both state and local partners in a manner that requires little need for new bureaucracy.

“Iowans do not want to wait for meaningful work to address the state’s water quality crisis, and are eager for improved places to interact in the outdoors,” said Adam Shirley, Director of the Mitchell County Conservation Board and President of the Iowa County Conservation Directors Association.
“The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund represents a turning point toward a better Iowa for today’s citizens and a legacy for future generations.”

For more information on the effort to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, visit