Ten Years Later, Trust Fund Becomes Governor’s Priority

Will this be the year that it finally happens? Will this be the legislative session in which the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund finally gets funded?

If the legislature passes Governor Kim Reynolds’ proposal, then yes.

This has been a long time coming. Like, almost a decade-and-a-half long. But now, for the first time since the whole idea of sustainable funding became a plausible reality, we have a governor specifically calling for it.

So how did we get here?
Way back in 2006, the Iowa legislature created 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 meet Iowans’ demands for conservation and outdoor recreation. 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 needs. After more than a year of research and public hearings, the committee came to the unanimous conclusion that the legislature should give Iowans the chance to vote on a constitutional amendment establishing the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund which would be funded through a 3/8 cent sales tax, with funds distributed through an established formula and subject to annual public audits.

But that wasn’t the end of it. In true government fashion, the legislature then appointed another committee to review the first 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 again 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 in an act of bipartisanship the likes of which is a novelty these days, they got it done. More than 90 percent of the legislators in both the 2008 and 2009 sessions voted to allow the Iowa Water and Land Legacy, or IWiLL, amendment be placed on the 2010 ballot.

While all this was happening, the formula that the committee came up with was written into state code where it still resides today in Chapter 461. It distributes the annual $150 million to $200 million that would eventually be generated from the new sales tax as such: Seven percent to lake restoration, 10 percent to trails, 13 percent to local conservation partnerships, 13 percent to the Iowa Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program, 14 percent to watershed protection, 20 percent to soil conservation and water protection, and 23 percent to natural resources.

With that funding formula in place, Iowans took to the polls in 2010 and confirmed what the Sustainable Funding Committee had determined. With 63 percent of Iowa voters in favor of writing the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund into the state constitution, Iowans made clear their willingness to invest in parks, trails, water quality, and natural resources.

In a vote tally that exceeded that of any cast for any candidate for any state office during that election, Iowans resoundingly created the Trust Fund. We were on our way to investing hundreds of millions into our parks and trails and soils and waters every year. Forever.
And then that’s where it ended. The Trust Fund we created has sat empty for ten years.

See, our votes could only create the Fund, not fill it. Getting the money to flow would take the Iowa legislature passing a sales tax increase. And yet, despite growing demand from the people of Iowa, the legislature has refused to act.

Until now. Maybe.

So here we are. For the first time since our votes created it, our Governor has boldly made funding the Trust a priority. Will the legislature back her up? Will they take bold, legacy-creating action in an election year? And if they do move to fund the Trust, to what degree will they change the distribution formula?

For those of us that enjoy outdoor recreation and value natural resources, these are exciting times indeed.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

Enjoying my posts? Subscribe here to get future Outdoor Executive Dad posts sent right to your inbox.