What's the Big Deal with Water Quality? Part 3: We Were Almost Leaders

Sometimes, you just get things right. About a decade ago, Iowa took steps that put it on track to become a national leader in conservation and outdoor recreation. 

Today, I discuss the process by which Iowa put the future of its natural resources squarely in the hands of its citizens…and then took it away. This is the history of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

Image source: Iowa's Water and Land Legacy (IWiLL) on Facebook
In 2006, the Iowa legislature set out to assess the needs and wants of Iowans regarding its natural resources by creating what was then called the Sustainable Funding Advisory Committee. This committee was to conduct extensive research and provide the legislature a proposal for a sustainable funding mechanism that would address those needs. Members of this committee were appointed by the governor and included representatives from Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, County Conservation Boards, Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship (IDALS), Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, and others. The 18-member committee also included members of both parties from both the House and Senate.

Throughout 2006 and 2007, the committee researched the state’s natural resource needs and looked into how people interact with those resources. It conducted a “willingness to pay” survey to assess to what degree, and under what circumstances, Iowans were willing to pay to address those resource needs. As a legislatively-appointed committee, it was able to solicit testimony from various experts on financing, legislative processes, and research-based natural resource needs. After more than a year of research and public hearings, the committee came to the following unanimous consensus on a number of recommendations, including:
  • A target funding level of $150 million annually (above current levels and if possible, adjusted annually for inflation) would provide substantial progress over time toward meeting the identified natural resource needs even though, in total, they would require billions of dollars to fully meet. 
  • The funds should be spent strategically, using a set formula to distribute the funds consistent with Iowans’ desires. The committee unanimously recommended the following formula, which ultimately was adopted into state code (Chapter 461).
  • In order for Iowans to trust that the funds will be used only for the natural resource and outdoor recreation purposes they approved them for, the funding mechanism should be constitutionally protected and subject to an annual audit and public report. 
The committee’s massive survey efforts found a desire for all Iowans to invest in natural resources funding. After studying more than 40 potential mechanisms, the committee unanimously concluded the funding should come from a 3/8 cent sales tax increase and subsequently recommended as such to the legislature.

But that wasn’t the end of it. In true government fashion, the legislature then appointed another committee to review the Sustainable Funding Committee’s findings. In 2007, the bipartisan Legislative Interim Committee analyzed the funding formula, sales tax funding mechanism, polling data, and other information gathered by the original committee. This second committee then unanimously adopted the original committee’s recommendations and suggested that the legislature let the people of Iowa choose whether to pass a constitutional amendment establishing the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

Now, as you’d expect, changing the Iowa Constitution is no small feat. Just getting the question on the ballot required passing it through two consecutive general assemblies of the legislature. But they got it done. More than 90 percent of the legislators in both the 2008 and 2009 sessions voted to allow the question of the constitutional amendment be placed on the 2010 ballot (how’s that for bipartisanship?!). 

After that, it was simply a matter of finding out whether the polling data the committees had reviewed was accurate. Did Iowans really want such a fund established? Were they really willing to pay for natural resources and outdoor recreation to the tune of $150 million annually via a 3/8 cent sales tax?

The following is the ballot language presented to the people (as described in the most recent Trust Fund annual report):
Summary: Adopts Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment which creates a dedicated trust fund 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.

Full Text: Article VII of the Constitution of the State of Iowa is amended by adding the following new section: NATURAL RESOURCES. SEC. 10. A natural resources and outdoor recreation trust fund is created within the treasury for the purposes of protecting and enhancing water quality and natural areas in this State including parks, trails, and fish and wildlife habitat, and conserving agricultural soils in this State. Moneys in the fund shall be exclusively appropriated by law for these purposes.
The general assembly shall provide by law for the implementation of this section, including by providing for the administration of the fund and at least annual audits of the fund.

Except as otherwise provided in this section, the fund shall be annually credited with an amount equal to the amount generated by a sales tax rate of three-eighths of one percent as may be imposed upon the retail sales price of tangible personal property and the furnishing of enumerated services sold in this State.

No revenue shall be credited to the fund until the tax rate for the sales tax imposed upon the retail sales price of tangible personal property and the furnishing of enumerated services sold in this State in effect on the effective date of this section is increased. After such an increased tax rate becomes effective, an amount equal to the amount generated by the increase in the tax rate shall be annually credited to the fund, not to exceed an amount equal to the amount generated by a tax rate of three-eighths of one percent imposed upon the retail sales price of tangible personal property and the furnishing of enumerated services sold in this State.
Once the votes were tallied, the answer became abundantly clear. Iowans overwhelmingly supported the measure: 62.8 percent of voters approved the constitutional amendment. Shortly thereafter, the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund was established. It was the culmination of an effort to address major policy issues (natural resources and outdoor recreation) by listening to the very citizens to which those policies would apply. The vote essentially placed the burden of taxation in the hands of the very people who would pay it.

In fact, more Iowans voted in favor of the constitutional amendment than for any candidate in that election. We were on our way to stepping up as a national leader in soil conservation, water quality, and outdoor recreation. If any candidate had won by a 63 percent majority, they’d call it a landslide. You’d think that the will of Iowans rang loud and clear in those results.

Apparently not, because it all fell apart after that.

The constitutional amendment vote only created the Trust Fund. It didn’t actually put any money into it. That requires legislative action. Specifically, it requires passage of a sales tax increase of at least three-eighths of a penny. That cannot be done by referendum. Iowans don’t get to vote on such things (otherwise, logically, you’d think that would have been part of the original ballot measure).

And that’s where it ended.

Instead of acting on the recommendations of two advisory committees and 63 percent of the voters in the 2010 election, the legislature instead chose to ignore the issue. And, despite an ever growing coalition of citizens and organizations from all over the state (including the Iowa Soybean Association, American Cancer Society, and American Heart Association, to name a few), it has continued to do so for more than seven years now. The coalition pushing to get the Trust funded is called Iowa's Water and Land Legacy (aka IWiLL).

Now maybe the legislature's refusal to act would be justified if something changed and our water quality improved. But it hasn’t. Keep in mind that the constitutional amendment vote took place more than two years before the publication of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the Sustainable Funding Advisory Committee was established a full two years before the current version of the Gulf Hypoxia Plan (I talked about both of those plans in my last post, in case you missed it).

Or maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal if we were investing more in our parks and natural resources. But we’re not. Since 2009, the state has cut the DNR’s budget in half – from $22 million to just over $11 million – causing the department to seriously question whether it can still effectively carry out its mission to protect our air, water, parks and trails.

Or maybe the opinion of Iowans regarding natural resources between 2006 and the 2010 election was different than it is now. Maybe the polls and votes were wrong and we’re not actually willing to pay to clean our waters and fund our parks.

Nope. In fact, all indications are that we’re MORE willing to pay today than we were seven-plus years ago. A November 2017 poll found that 69 percent of Iowans support a sales tax increase to fund the Trust. 

That’s up from the 63 percent that voted to establish it in 2010, and up from the 66 percent that indicated as much in a 2014 poll. 

So it begs the question, why won’t the legislature just do it? And don’t give me that line about taxes being political suicide. According to the poll, seven in ten Iowans say they would have a more favorable opinion of a state legislator that voted for a sales tax increase to fund the Trust. Six in ten say the same for the Governor.

What gives? We were doing so good, we had such momentum. We were being proactive. We completely preempted the federal initiatives that came out through the Gulf Hypoxia Plan and resulting Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The people of Iowa were given a voice, and we spoke loudly. Yet we're being ignored. We continue to get louder with every citizen and organization that joins the IWiLL coalition.

It’s time the people in Des Moines started listening again.

Tired of being ignored while our parks, trails, soils and waters degrade? Share this post with the world on social media. While you're at it, join the coalition to #FundTheTrust at www.IowasWaterandLandLegacy.org.