“Shall the following amendment to the [Iowa] Constitution be adopted?” Though it may come as a surprise to most Iowans, that is one of the many decisions they will have to make as they fill out their ballots this November.
Until recently, the proposed Water & Land Legacy Amendment has received little attention from a media preoccupied with covering the candidates and judicial retention vote. The amendment was overwhelming passed by two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly with little fanfare. In 2009, the Iowa House approved the measure by a vote of 82-14, followed by a 49-1 vote in the Iowa Senate the next day.
Recently, however, the Iowa Farm Bureau Association began to run ads encouraging voters to reject the proposed constitutional amendment. They are about the only organized group opposing the amendment, and even they recognize that most of their members would support increased funding for conservation. To date, the only other opposition to the amendment came from an editorial in the Quad City Times.
On the other side of the issue are approximately one-hundred supporters of the amendment who have joined together under an umbrella organization called Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy. They include Pheasants Forever, Huntmasters Club, the Iowa Farmer’s Union, and several chapters of the Sierra Club. Other members include the Hungry Canyons Alliance, Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, Skunk River Navy, and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.
Several of these organizations have spent money in recent months urging Iowa voters to pass the proposed amendment, including Creating Great Places, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, Pheasants Forever, Sierra Club (Iowa chapter), Sierra Club (Central Iowa Group), the Conservation Campaign, the Nature Conservancy in Iowa, and Trees Forever.
The summary of the amendment which accompanies it on the ballot reads as follows: “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.”
The amendment would create a permanent trust called the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Three-eights of one cent ((0.375) from sales tax revenue will forever be allocated to fund the Trust. This is not triggered, however, until the next time the Iowa Legislature approves a sales tax increase.
While no one disputes the desirability of conservation efforts, it is debatable whether a mandatory minimum funding level should be imposed in the Constitution. The state constitution currently creates two de facto trusts for highway spending and fish and wildlife protection, but no where does it mandate that a set amount be dedicated to those projects. It leaves those decisions to the discretion of the state legislature as current conditions may dictate.
Additionally, leaving the Trust unfunded until the General Assembly raises the sales tax guarantees that it is only a matter of time until they do so. As soon as the amendment is passed, Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy and its member organizations will begin lobbying for the Trust to be funded.
It would take a strong politician to say “no” to such a reasonably-sounding request when facing an ad blitz informing his constituents that 53% of Iowa’s water was rated “poor,” or that Iowa loses an average of 5 tons of soil per acre each year, or that Iowa’s spending on conservation ranks 47th in the nation.
If the overwhelming majority of the General Assembly passed the Trust without so much as an argument, it is doubtful they will resist demands to fund it. Perversely, the proposed amendment will give legislators an incentive to raise the sales tax in the name of funding the Trust while providing them with the perfect cover for increasing tax revenue for their own pet projects.
Once the sales tax is raised, it is estimated that it will fund the Trust with $150 million per year. The Sustainable Natural Resources Advisory Committee has already developed an allocation for those funds. $30 million would go to agriculture and land stewardship, including “environmental agricultural and livestock stewardship.”
$35 million would go to natural resources management such as “access for hunting and other recreational activities…natural resources outreach including natural history interpretation…, [and] angling opportunities…” $20 million would go to such projects as “conservation education” and “nature interpretation at the local level.”
$10 million would be earmarked for lake restoration projects including “lakes that provide a full complement of aesthetic, ecological, and recreational benefits.” Finally, $15 million would be used for “the addition of new hiking, walking, biking, and water trails, and the maintenance of existing trails.”
None of these projects are bad, but neither are those just listed necessary when the country is in a recession, unemployment is near 10%, and local, state, and federal governments are facing rising budget deficits. Recreation, “environmental agriculture,” and “conservation education” may be great, but they are things the state should not be spending money on in this time of belt-tightening.
While Iowa voters should therefore reject this amendment, they should also encourage their legislators to prudentially increase spending on necessary conservation projects as economic conditions allow.
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