Branstad slashes conservation and clean water funding

It’s one of the oldest tricks in any governor’s playbook: schedule media events for bill signing ceremonies you want the public to hear about, while burying bad news late on a Friday, after reporters have filed their stories. I was worried Governor Terry Branstad would make big cuts to environmental funding just before Memorial Day weekend, as he had cut food bank money two years ago.

Instead, Branstad’s office released the news about this year’s spending vetoes after dinnertime on Friday, May 30. Hours earlier, the governor had welcomed reporters, lawmakers, and members of the public to watch him sign a bill legalizing the possession of cannabis oil to treat seizure disorders, as well as a bill altering Iowa’s HIV transmission law.

Follow me after the jump for the gory details. I no longer consider 2014 a good year for Iowa environmental funding.

Branstad vetoed Senate File 2363, a supplemental spending bill approved during the final hours of the legislative session. That bill included $5 million for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, part of a record-setting $25 million appropriation to mark REAP’s 25th anniversary. Division II of SF 2363 included $11.24 million for various water quality and watershed protection programs administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Some of the projects Branstad eliminated by vetoing SF 2363 (for instance, various building renovations at Iowa’s state universities) will receive future budget appropriations, for complicated reasons Rod Boshart explained well here. But there will be no magic restoration of the REAP or water funding Branstad cut.

The governor’s veto message talks a good game about being “prudent with taxpayer dollars” and having a “fiscally sound, predictable and sustainable” state budget. But if he were proud of these cuts, he would have announced them at a Monday morning press conference or other public event. Branstad’s been eager to throw tens of millions of state dollars toward major corporations for investments that would have happened anyway. Why can’t we afford a little extra money for conservation and programs that are supposed to address Iowa’s appalling water quality?

Branstad wasn’t done hacking at environmental spending. He also used his line-item veto power to cut various provisions from Senate File 2349, the bill allocating money from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund. (Gambling revenues make up the largest share of that fund.) You can read Branstad’s veto message on this bill here and find the relevant sections here. The worst part:

I am unable to approve the item designated as Division VI in its entirety. This item would give $4,000,000 in taxpayer dollars to the Resources Enhancement and Protection fund (REAP). The effect of this disapproval saves $4,000,000 in spending and helps us achieve our goal of a balanced budget. The REAP program has $16,000,000 still available in other appropriation bills for this year, representing an increase of $2,000,000 available for REAP over last year.

Not so fast. The Iowa DNR’s website says “REAP was appropriated $16 million” for the current fiscal year and has a total budget of $16.5 million, including interest income and revenues from Iowa’s natural resources license plates. Perhaps the person who wrote Branstad’s letter is technically correct, that $14 million for REAP came from the regular appropriation bill for the DNR. But the letter gives a false impression that after Branstad’s latest vetoes, total funding available for REAP in fiscal year 2015 will be $2 million higher than it was in fiscal year 2014. That’s just not true. UPDATE: Branstad’s claim was false. REAP received a $16 million allocation from the Environmental First Fund for the current fiscal year.

Even if Branstad were allowing REAP funding to increase from $14 million to $16 million, REAP is supposed to receive $20 million every year. Trouble is, the Iowa legislature has never fully funded this program in two and a half decades. So $25 million this year would have helped to compensate for many years of underfunding projects with broad popular support.

I was relieved to see that Branstad’s line-item vetoes did not affect $9.5 million that SF 2349 allocated to the Iowa DNR for lake projects, or $6 million allocated to the Iowa Department of Transportation “for acquiring, constructing, and improving recreational trails within the state.” Side note for central Iowa bicyclists: $1 million of the trail funding is earmarked for “grants to refurbish existing trail bridges that have documented historical and architectural significance.” Supposedly part of that money will go toward repairing the SW 5th St./Jackson Avenue/Green Bridge, part of the Meredith Trail near Principal Park, which the city of Des Moines closed in 2013 “due to structural concerns.” That bridge is more than 100 years old and was long used by south-siders to get to jobs downtown.

UPDATE: Also worth mentioning that the governor left intact $2 million that SF 2349 allocated to the Iowa DNR for low-head dam mitigation and water trails. In 2011, he item vetoed $1 million in water trails funding.

Citizens for a Healthy Iowa has started a petition drive to “stand up to Gov. Terry Branstad and his VETO of critical water quality funding.” Naturally, I’d love to see lawmakers override these vetoes. I flat-out don’t believe any Iowa House or Senate Republicans will join that effort, though. Senate File 2363 may have passed the Iowa House by 97 votes to 0, but House Republican leaders will not defy the governor over any spending cuts, particularly environmental spending cuts.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey released a statement on Friday saying he was “very disappointed” Branstad vetoed the IDALS water quality program funding. That’s as far any elected Republican will go.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- About those celebratory bill signings last Friday: the cannabis oil bill is a step in the right direction, despite being way too limited, leaving marijuana inaccessible legally to thousands of Iowans with legitimate medical needs for it. Changes to the HIV transmission bill were long overdue, as Iowa’s previous law included some of the country’s harshest penalties, sometimes applied to people who never infected or intended to infect anyone. In fact, Iowa’s new infectious disease transmission law is a “model” for other states, according to some advocates.

There was some other good news in the press release on Branstad’s final bill legislative action. For instance, he signed into law a bill that will expand solar tax credits. (A future post will focus on prospects for increasing solar energy production in Iowa. The potential is huge.)

UPDATE: This pdf file shows the history of REAP funding every year since 1989. It confirms that the REAP budget allocation for fiscal year 2014 was $16 million, not the $14 million Branstad mentioned in his veto message. The only question now is whether the governor deliberately lied to put a better spin on his actions, or whether he was misled by staffers who drafted the veto message.

SECOND UPDATE: Todd Dorman’s latest column is a classic. Click through to read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt.

Of the 24 fiscal years REAP has been shafted, Branstad has been governor for 13. He’s a grand champion REAP reaper. The money he vetoed would have gone to conservation and recreation projects chosen by local officials, improving parks, trails, woodland areas, etc. This is a governor who has demonstrated over the years that he’s far more comfortable with edicts from his Statehouse than local decision-making. […]

Of those [$11.2 million] dollars [for IDALS], Branstad vetoed $3.5 million in matching funds for farmers’ efforts to reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphorus reaching Iowa waterways. That still leaves $4.4 million available, but the state could have done so much more to address a serious problem where we’ve invested far too little. This year, when the ag department offered $2.8 million, 1,000 farmers snapped up the entire pot in two weeks. Clearly, demand is there.

Branstad’s veto of those dollars comes just as Iowa is making some small progress on reducing nutrient levels in major rivers. Apparently, the state can afford $110 million in tax breaks to build a huge fertilizer plant, but not $3.5 million to help farmers keep more fertilizer out of our rivers. Branstad will spend more than that on his re-election campaign.

Another $5 million Branstad vetoed would have helped clear a waiting list of farmers seeking state help in paying for soil conservation practices, $1.2 million would have gone to close ag drainage wells that could allow pollution to reach aquifers and $1.5 million would have paid for local watershed projects. Because the water quality, soil conservation and watershed efforts require one-to-one matching dollars, the true effect of his vetoes is doubled.

Linn County supervisors are warning that plans to expand trails in eastern Iowa will be set back.

[Lu] Barron and [Brent] Oleson said Linn County had hoped to seek a piece of the additional REAP funding to help extend the county trail system from Ely to Johnson County and to pave other sections of the main trail through the county between Johnson and Black Hawk counties.

Oleson said many groups, including the Linn supervisors, worked hard to get the $25 million for REAP to celebrate the program’s 25th anniversary, which came on Saturday, he said.

“There’s obviously no vision for outdoor Iowa,” Oleson said of Branstad’s cut to REAP.

Oleson said Branstad’s son, Marcus, sits on the Iowa Natural Resources Commission, which was among the entities that called for $25 million in funding for REAP to mark its 25th anniversary.

Oleson, a Republican who has supported Branstad’s re-election, said he appreciates the governor’s commitment to the state’s financial stability, but he called the governor’s cut to of the legislative funding for REAP “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

“It’s just as important as a fertilizer plant (now under construction) in Lee County or these other kind of tax giveaways to corporations to create jobs,” Oleson said. Funding for quality of life programs like REAP play their own key role in economic development, he said.

  • Republican opposition to clean water

    In addition to Branstad’s vetoes, Joni Ernst called the Clean Water Act one of the most damaging laws for business.

    • I saw that!

      I thought it was worse than her gaffe calling the mass shooting an “unfortunate accident.” She said “many, many” EPA regulations are bad for business, and when the debate moderator asked her to name one, it looked like she couldn’t think of anything to say besides the Clean Water Act. Or maybe she really does want to repeal the Clean Water Act. Either way is bad.

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