Iowa House and Senate approve sustainable funding amendment

The Iowa Senate approved the Natural Resources Trust Fund constitutional amendment today by 49 to 1, with Senator Pam Jochum (D) casting the only no vote.

The Iowa House approved the same bill yesterday by 82 to 14, with 4 not voting. Although the measure passed with strong bipartisan support, 11 Democrats and 3 Republicans voted no.

This is a huge victory for the Sustainable Funding Coalition, which includes the following organizations:

Conservation Districts of Iowa

Ducks Unlimited

Environment Iowa

Environmental Law & Policy Center

Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards

Iowa Conservation Alliance

Iowa Environmental Council

Iowa Farmers Union

Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation

Iowa Rivers Revival

Izaak Walton League

The Nature Conservancy

Pheasants Forever

Sierra Club, Iowa Chapter

Here is some background on the bill from the Iowa Environmental Council’s website:

This bill will …

Establish a constitutionally protected state fund for protecting and enhancing water quality, conserving Iowa’s precious agricultural soils, and much more.  Minnesota and other states have established similar trust funds.

This bill will NOT raise taxes

In Iowa, taxes cannot be raised by a constitutional amendment. However, constitutional amendments can dedicate a portion of tax revenue to certain activities. If this bill (currently numbered as SJR1 in the Senate and HJR1 in the House) becomes law, and WHEN sales taxes are increased in Iowa in the future, the first 3/8 cent of the new tax must be earmarked or dedicated to this new Trust.

Why sustainable funding?

Increased and protected state funding is essential to provide key benefits across Iowa:

* Cleaner water

* Positive economic impacts

* Sustainable agriculture and soils

* Outdoor recreation opportunities close to home where Iowans can enjoy and appreciate healthy activities, nature, and Iowa’s beauty.

Why a constitutional amendment?

Sales tax revenues are much more stable than the state budget. With a constitutional amendment that guarantees 3/8 cent of sales tax revenue to conservation, there will be predictable and steady funding for important long-term programs for a healthier environment.

What’s the process to establish the sustainable funding?

A vote of the people, as well as a vote of two different legislative bodies, is needed.

1. The 2008 Iowa Legislature passes the joint resolution to place the issue on public ballot.

2. The 2009 Iowa Legislature passes the same joint resolution.

3. Iowans would vote on the resolution in a statewide election. A simple majority is needed for its passage.

4. The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund begins accumulating when Iowa sales tax is increased.

The Iowa Environmental Council has also prepared this fact sheet (pdf file) on the sustainable funding initiative.

Although I would have voted for this bill, I have mixed feelings about it. I recognize the importance of securing a reliable funding stream for these programs, and this approach seems to work well for other states.

At the same time, I know California got into trouble by adopting too many constitutional amendments on funding this or that program. I also question why adequate funding for the environment should depend on raising the sales tax, which is regressive.

People involved with the Sustainable Funding Coalition have told me that they are working with the Iowa Policy Project to come up with a way to mitigate the impact that a sales tax hike would have on lower-income Iowans. (One option would be to increase the earned-income tax credit at the same time that the sales tax is increased.)

The Des Moines Register quoted four representatives explaining their votes, and I felt all raised valid points:

Rep. Paul Bell, D-Newton: “It is only right that we protect and maintain our natural resources for our children and godchildren.”

Rep. Mike May, R-Spirit Lake: “This is not a political issue. This is an environmental issue. A vibrant environment is incredibly important to our future. I’m concerned that we may supplant the funds that are now dedicated to DNR with this money. It behooves the Legislature to be vigilant and committed that we are going to protect this money.”

OPPONENTS: Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport: “We are elected to make decisions every day. Calling for a constitutional amendment allows us to put off our decision about our valuable natural resources. I do not think we need permission from our voters to make this important decision.”

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia: “I support many causes that are mentioned in this resolution. Here’s my problem. What’s to prevent a future legislature from stripping all the money we currently spend (on natural resources) and switch to the money in this special fund?”

I put the full roll call from the Iowa House after the jump.

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