Turning on the Trust Fund Tap

It’s happening.

In last month’s column, I asked whether the Iowa Legislature would take the bold action of funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust as the Governor requested. And they might just be.

The Governor’s Invest in Iowa initiative is written into the identical Senate and House Study Bills. These bills do several things such as raise the sales tax, lower income tax, and distribute funding for mental health, among others.

This is exciting because any sales tax increase of at least three-eighths of a cent automatically funds the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund which is also sometimes referred to as Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, or IWiLL. Therefore, this legislation would turn on the tap that will generate something to the tune of $200 million per year for natural resources and outdoor recreation. That’s more than double the amount of funding this state has ever spent on such things ever before. Not to mention the trust fund is constitutionally protected, annually publicly audited, and subsequently (theoretically anyway) out of reach of greedy politicians.

That’s a really big deal no matter how you cut it. But there’s a devil in the details.

When 63 percent of Iowans voted to amend the state’s constitution to create the fund back in 2010, there already existed in state code a distribution formula that outlined how those dollars would be spent. The proposed legislation changes that formula and adds some rules and restrictions that I’m not sure hold true to the expectations we had for the fund back when we created it. 
This is the distribution formula that was established in state code when we voted to establish the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Bills currently proposed in Des Moines would make significant changes to it.

For instance, the proposed legislation cuts the amount allocated to trails by 60 percent (from ten to four percent). It then divides that four percent down the middle with half of it allocated to land trails and half to water trails. This is not what was promised a decade ago.

The legislation, as written, also doesn’t allow any trust fund dollars to be spent on recreation projects without first being scored and ranked by the Iowa Economic Development Authority via a competitive process that “must further the economic development policy of the state…”

Now I’ve said before that economic development and outdoor recreation are linked, but I question whether the IEDA is the state agency best suited to make decisions regarding outdoor recreation funding. IWiLL is not the Natural Resources and Economic Development Trust Fund.

Additionally, several parts of the bill de-emphasize, restrict, or otherwise reduce funding for the recreation components of the trust fund. And I really feel that runs counter to the original intent. Certainly, more sales tax paying Iowans will use parks and trails than wildlife areas and field buffers.

Similarly, there is language sprinkled throughout the bill that makes it clear that public land acquisition is not to be in any way a priority. This is unsurprising considering the same legislature, at the behest of the ag lobby last year, proposed a bill that would all but ban public land acquisition. In a state surpassed only by Kansas in lack of public land, I really feel this runs counter to the sentiment of the majority of Iowans. This was made fairly clear last year when a record-setting number of people filled the capitol in Des Moines in opposition to that anti-public land bill.

This bill also restricts non-governmental organizations from accessing the Local Conservation Partnership slice of the funding pie (which, if the distribution percentages in this bill stick, will see about one-third less funding than expected) without a formal 28E agreement with a local community. That extra layer of bureaucracy is, I feel, wholly unnecessary and will essentially prevent local nonprofits from tapping trust fund dollars for their projects. Again, this is contrary to original expectations.

And finally, this bill directs a fair bit of funding to water and sewer infrastructure programs that I really don’t feel were intended to be funded through the trust back when we voted on it. But I’m torn on this one knowing the costs my own city is facing for such projects.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that the legislature may finally fund the trust a decade after we asked them to. But we should all be aware that the way they’re dividing and restricting the funding is inconsistent in many ways with what we originally expected. And that sours my enthusiasm just a bit. I wish politicians would just do what we asked of them and not go mucking things up with unnecessary formula changes and added bureaucracy, but I guess that’s just not how government works.

Even as is though, this legislation would generate funding for natural resources and outdoor recreation the likes of which we’ve never seen in Iowa. So, details notwithstanding, let’s turn on the tap. We can adjust the temperature later.
This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

Want to add your two cents? Contact your legislator and tell them you support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, even if it means they have to agree to some changes to the formula. The important thing is just to get the money flowing. It only takes a few minutes to punch out an email or leave a phone message at the switchboard. 

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 www.IowasWaterandLandLegacy.org or follow the coalition on Facebook.