Iowa water quality and confirmation bias

Thanks to Democratic activist Paul Deaton, “a low wage worker, husband, father and gardener trying to sustain a life in a turbulent world,” for cross-posting these ideas from his blog. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Progressives, farmers and environmentalists heard there is movement in the Iowa legislature to fund water quality and ears perked up — a natural impulse to interpret new events as supporting something we already believe or are working on, also known as confirmation bias.

56 percent of Iowans support increasing the state sales tax three-eighths of a cent to pay for water quality projects and outdoor recreation, according to a Selzer and Company poll reported by the Des Moines Register on Feb 12.

On March 14, State Representative Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton) introduced such a bill: the WISE (Water, Infrastructure and Soil for our Economy) bill, House File 597.

After a three year implementation the tax would generate $180 million to fund Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which was created by a 2010 amendment to Iowa’s constitution. It sounds pretty good. However, we shouldn’t let our confirmation bias help Republican efforts to tax the poor, cut the general fund, and support the failed Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Representative Chip Baltimore (R-Boone) and House Agriculture Committee Chair Lee Hein (R-Monticello) had previously introduced a water quality bill (House Study bill 135) addressing structural issues related to the use of water quality funds. Baltimore favored spending funds on watershed programs such as the governor’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Kaufmann’s bill mandates 60 percent of funding be directed to “a research-based water quality initiative (that) includes but not limited to a practice described in the Iowa nutrient reduction strategy.”

When Governor Terry Branstad created the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, in response to a federal requirement to address water quality, it was the least he could do. It was a way of tinkering around the edges of a water quality program, leveraging wide-spread concern about the need to act without changing the underlying structure of the system that creates excessive nitrate and phosphate loads in our water.

Branstad’s approach sucked up media attention and political will while doing little to address the root cause of the water quality problem.

“I welcome any legislative effort regardless of party that looks to protect the environment,” a progressive voter posted on Facebook. “While I agree that it is not fair that we have to take on the burden of trying to clean up after the farmers, I also know that they are a stubborn lot that hold great political power in Iowa. Therefore we need to be pragmatic and take whatever we can get while the Republicans are in charge.”

A lot of people would agree with this sentiment.

It’s clear solutions proposed in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy could work. They won’t work until either the strategy is compulsory, or there is funding to support broad participation.

“Republicans sometimes get accused of not being pro-environment, of not being pro-water quality,” Kaufmann said. “Well, this is our way of taking that bull by the horns and putting forth a good, tax-neutral water quality bill that puts guarantees in it that we can make sure dollars go to water quality.”

Despite Kaufmann’s work on the bill there are issues with the WISE approach to water quality.

Sales tax is regressive, which means it would be applied uniformly to all situations, regardless of the payer. Some might argue that everyone uses water so why shouldn’t everyone pay through sales tax? It is a straw man argument. A sales tax takes a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from people causing this problem.

What’s worse than the regressive nature of sales tax is the Republican position any new tax must be revenue neutral. That means cutting the state budget. Where will the legislature find an additional $180 million in budget cuts after a year with three successive revenue shortfalls?

“Kaufmann admits there (are) still some questions about how the bill would affect other state programs,” Rob Swoboda reported in Wallaces Farmer. “But, he says, the only way the Republican-led legislature will pass a water-quality funding plan would be if the plan is revenue-neutral.”

Proposed budget cuts should be defined before advocating for the WISE bill.

There is no need to hold the agricultural community harmless in the pursuit of clean water. In 2013, when developing the Iowa Fertilizer Plant (a.k.a. Orascom) in Wever, Governor Branstad said, “the plant would create 2,500 temporary construction jobs and 165 permanent jobs and save farmers $740 million annually by cutting the price of fertilizer.” Whether or not there was a windfall in fertilizer savings farmers can afford to put skin in the water quality game.

“Where public money is needed (to fund water quality initiatives), consider an obvious source: the sale of farm fertilizer,” former state senator David Osterberg wrote in a May 25, 2016 column in the Des Moines Register. “If an urban person buys fertilizer for the lawn, there is a sales tax on the purchase. Farmers are exempt from the normal sales tax on fertilizer and a lot of other things. There is no reason for this exemption. Put the sales tax on fertilizer, earmark it to water-quality strategies and you have, conservatively, about $130 million a year to work with.”

While a majority of voters agree something must be done to improve water quality, political capital shouldn’t be diverted to supporting failed Republican policies just because they sound good or appear to support what we all believe.

Top image: Century farm in Johnson County. Photo by Paul Deaton.

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Who's who in the Iowa House for 2017

The Iowa House opens its 2017 session today with 59 Republicans, 40 Democrats, and one vacancy, since Jim Lykam resigned after winning the recent special election in Iowa Senate district 45. The 99 state representatives include 27 women (18 Democrats and nine Republicans) and 72 men. Five African-Americans (all Democrats) serve in the legislature’s lower chamber; the other 95 lawmakers are white. No Latino has ever been elected to the Iowa House, and there has not been an Asian-American member since Swati Dandekar moved up to the Iowa Senate following the 2008 election.

After the jump I’ve posted details on the Iowa House majority and minority leadership teams, along with all chairs, vice chairs, and members of standing House committees. Where relevant, I’ve noted changes since last year.

Under the Ethics Committee subheading, you’ll see a remarkable example of Republican hypocrisy.

Some non-political trivia: the Iowa House includes two Taylors (one from each party) and two Smiths (both Democrats). As for first names, there are six Davids (four go by Dave), four Roberts (two Robs, one Bob, and a Bobby), four Marys (one goes by Mary Ann), and three men each named Gary, John, and Charles (two Chucks and a Charlie). There are also two Elizabeths (a Beth and a Liz) and two men each named Brian, Bruce, Chris, Greg, Michael, and Todd.

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Weekend open thread: University politics

Congratulations to all the Bleeding Heartland readers who just finished a year of academic work and especially to those who completed their undergraduate or graduate degrees this month. Good luck with whatever you have planned for the summer and beyond, and remember, many people switch gears several times during their careers. What I spend my time on now is different from the work I did during and immediately after grad school and far from any future I imagined as an undergraduate.

Pat Rynard recently interviewed eight student journalists about their experiences covering the Iowa caucuses. Well done to all, and good luck to the four who are graduating: Brent Griffiths, Madeline Meyer, Rebecca Morin, and Lissandra Villa.

Congratulations are also in order for everyone involved with the Iowa State Daily, which just won the “Best All-Around Daily Student Newspaper” award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld struck an odd note in his graduation message to faculty, staff, and students: “Although a university attempts to create a space for fruitful study for its faculty and students, it can’t escape reality. We have gone through a lot at the University of Iowa, particularly in the last year. And yet here we are, about to uphold a time-honored tradition.”

Much of the turmoil and discontent at the University of Iowa this past year stemmed from Harreld’s hiring, against the wishes of most campus stakeholders. Unlike most of the people affected by his arrival, Harreld has been extremely well-compensated, receiving a substantially higher salary than the woman he replaced. He also presided over a generous contract extension for Athletics Director Gary Barta, despite troubling trends for women under Barta’s leadership and questionable decisions that have spawned multiple lawsuits and investigations of alleged gender discrimination. Meanwhile, the University of Iowa decided against complying with Johnson County’s latest minimum wage hike, a policy Harreld declined to explain in a public forum.

Seeing Harreld allude to what “we have gone through” at the University of Iowa (as if he were some passive bystander) reminded me of the president’s strange answer to the Daily Iowan’s recent questions about hate speech. As the Ditchwalk blog covered in more detail here, Harreld doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between being insulted in public and being a target of hate speech.

Last week, some activists encouraged University of Iowa graduates not to shake Harreld’s hand while receiving their diplomas during the May 13 commencement ceremony. I understand the sentiment, but I would have encouraged students to deliver some concise verbal message while crossing the stage instead. Refusing a handshake makes a visible statement but also risks generating sympathy for Harreld.

Speaking of university leaders in the news, Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s approach to building relationships with lawmakers drew scrutiny recently. As Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on May 6, Leath provided tickets to sold-out ISU men’s basketball games to ten influential state legislators this year. Although the lawmakers paid face value for the tickets, the practice seems inconsistent with the spirit of Iowa’s gift law, since the courtside seats are normally available only to people who donate thousands of dollars to the university. Excerpts from Foley’s report and a recent Des Moines Register editorial on the subject are after the jump.

Simpson College political science Professor Kedron Bardwell recently flagged a disturbing interview Sam Clovis gave to Inside Higher Education. Clovis is on leave from his tenured position at Morningside College in Sioux City while he serves as a policy director for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Absurdly, Clovis suggested that even though “The liberal arts education is the absolute foundation to success in life,” perhaps student loans should not be available for those planning to major in the humanities. Presidential candidates bashing non-STEM education, especially philosophy majors, has long been a pet peeve for Bardwell. Many Simpson graduates who majored in philosophy or political science have gone on to successful careers. Research has shown that “philosophy majors consistently outperform nearly all other majors on graduate entrance exams such as the GRE and LSAT.”

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

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Never let it be said that the 2016 Iowa legislature accomplished nothing

In four months of work this year, Iowa lawmakers made no progress on improving water quality or expanding conservation programs, funded K-12 schools and higher education below levels needed to keep up with inflation, failed to increase the minimum wage or address wage theft, let most criminal justice reform proposals die in committee, didn’t approve adequate oversight for the newly-privatized Medicaid program, opted against making medical cannabis more available to sick and suffering Iowans, and left unaddressed several other issues that affect thousands of constituents.

But let the record reflect that bipartisan majorities in the Iowa House and Senate acted decisively to solve a non-existent problem. At a bill-signing ceremony yesterday, Governor Terry Branstad and supporters celebrated preventing something that probably never would have happened.

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Iowa House Republicans try to evade accountability on medical cannabis

What do state lawmakers do when they don’t want to pass something the overwhelming majority of their constituents support?

A time-honored legislative strategy involves 1) keeping the popular proposal from coming up for a vote, and 2) giving your members a chance to go on record supporting a phony alternative.

Iowa House Republicans executed that statehouse two-step this week in order to block efforts to make medical cannabis more widely available to Iowans suffering from serious health problems.

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