Beware the Bait and Switch

There’s a small chance the Iowa legislature will vote to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund this year. But will they change the distribution formula at the same time?

Some say yes, despite the fact that doing so would be nothing short of a “bait and switch” on all of us Iowans.

Allow me to explain.

The Trust Fund’s Formula

In an earlier post, I described the process involved in creating the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Between 2006 and 2010 when the constitutional amendment vote was taken, a ton of people from a bunch of different backgrounds spent a ton of time gathering input from Iowans. From those conversations came the idea of a sales-tax-funded, constitutionally protected fund that would be used “for the purposes of protecting and enhancing water quality and natural areas in the State including parks, trails, and fish and wildlife habitat, and conserving agricultural soils in this State” (that’s the exact wording from the ballot measure).

Now it’s one thing to create a fund; it’s something else entirely to distribute the fund’s dollars, especially when we’re talking $150 million or more annually (if the legislature ever actually funds it).

So along with the recommendation for the fund, the committees and legislators involved also proposed a formula by which those funds would be divided and distributed. This formula is what they came up with, which was ultimately enacted into state code prior to the passing of the constitutional amendment in 2010.

Therefore, when we voted by a 63 percent margin to amend the constitution and create the Trust Fund, this was the distribution formula we were working from. This was how we expected those hundreds of millions of dollars to be allocated.

Notice that not all of it is directed to water quality (though more than 60 percent would be through the various programs, including those not exclusively water-focused). Nor is all of it directed to parks. Or trails. Or to any one agency. It’s diversified, kind of like your investment portfolio should be. Which makes sense really, because the dollars that would funnel through the Fund are essentially investing in the diversity of things Iowans find important (and are willing to pay for), as determined during the lengthy research process that took place before the amendment vote. 

The Bait: Water Quality

From the start of this whole process, the committees intentionally took a “big picture” approach in asking Iowans what they felt was important and what they were willing to pay for. The focus was not just natural resources, or water quality, or trails, or parks, or ag land conservation…it was all the above. And while some of those may be more important to some Iowans than others, the formula’s pie slices addressed the things Iowans collectively said they valued.

But with the increasing awareness of the issues facing water quality in our state (which I previously wrote about here, here, and here), that topic has floated (pun intended) to the surface and has dominated the #FundTheTrust discussion for the past few years. And since the vast majority of the nutrients in our waters come from nonpoint sources (such as ag fields) coupled with the fact that there are some very powerful influencers in the ear of our lawmakers encouraging them to direct more funding toward the ag sector, there’s been a fair bit of discussion about changing the Trust Fund’s formula. 

The Switch: Changing the Formula

It is likely that if we do see a bill (or bills) proposed in Des Moines to fund the Trust, they will also include a change to the formula (at least that seems to be what we keep hearing). This change will most likely take money away from parks and trails and put it toward ag programs. There has also been an increasing demand from Farm Bureau to prohibit the purchase of land for public use (never mind that Iowa is near last nationally in the amount of public land, but that’s a topic for a later post).

The reasoning, they’ll say, is that we have such a major water quality issue that we need to direct all available resources to fixing it. Or something like that.

Make no mistake, I have no issue extolling the virtues of investment in water quality. Hell, I’ve dedicated a fair portion of this blog to it so far. But if that really is the stance of many of our elected leaders, why the hell is it only just now a key policy issue? Where was that devotion to water quality the last seven (or twenty) years?

Here’s the thing. The Trust is more than just water quality. The Trust, and the accompanying formula, as currently written, is the product of the collective voices of Iowans just as funding it will come from the payment of taxes from those very same Iowans (and a bunch of non-Iowans too for that matter since about 15 percent of sales tax collections come from outside the state). As is, more than 60 percent of the fund would go toward things that directly address the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Additionally, as designed, the vast majority of the Fund’s dollars would be distributed through existing programs and administrative infrastructure, reducing the need for additional bureaucracy (a novel idea in government, I know).

The Fund also cannot be used for regulatory or enforcement actions, eminent domain or litigation. On private land, it can only be used for voluntary practices. It is also subject to an annual audit. All of these criteria were put in place ahead of our vote on the constitutional amendment that created the Fund.

Here’s how I see it. If we’re going to place the burden of funding on the backs of all Iowans, we darn well ought to ensure that the benefits meet the diverse natural resource and outdoor recreation demands of those Iowans. The current formula does just that. It is the product of a major effort to understand the wants and needs of all Iowans. Changing it now would be nothing shy of a “bait and switch” at best. 

Changing the formula is basically saying that what we want isn’t actually important, and that a bunch of politicians – most of which weren’t around when the whole study process took place – know better than we do what’s best for us. It’s having us vote on one thing but delivering something different.

It’s a bait and switch, pure and simple. And none of us should stand for that.

Want to make sure they listen? Contact your legislator and tell them you support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund without any changes to the formula. It only takes a few minutes to punch out an email or leave a phone message at the switchboard. Hold them accountable. Make them listen. Remind them that they work for us.


To learn more about the effort to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, check out the Iowa's Water and Land Legacy website at or follow the coalition on Facebook.