Iowa House Democrats afraid to stand up to Big Ag

Although the 60-40 Republican majority leaves Iowa House Democrats few opportunities to block legislation, the Democratic caucus has taken a high-profile stands against some GOP proposals this year. House Democrats spoke passionately against preschool cuts in the first major bill of the 2011 session. Democrats fought the GOP’s bill to restrict collective bargaining at public rallies, all night in the House Labor Committee and for days on the House floor. The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee spoke out against the GOP’s income tax cut bill, and Democrats tried to redirect that proposal toward middle income Iowans.

In contrast, House Democrats have made little noise about bills that elevate the needs of agribusiness over the public interest. Earlier this month, nearly a quarter of the Democratic caucus voted to protect factory farms from undercover recordings to expose animal abuses. I saw no public comments from House minority leaders opposing that bill, which may well be unconstitutional.

Last week state representatives approved House File 643, which transfers several water quality responsibilities from the Department of Natural Resources to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. After minimal floor debate, seven Democrats voted with all the Republicans present for a bill that would impair efforts to limit water pollution. I saw no public comments or press releases from House minority leaders criticizing the bill or decrying its passage.

Follow me after the jump for more on House File 643 and its implications.

During last year’s campaign, Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad repeatedly criticized the Iowa DNR for allegedly taking too tough a stand on pollution. House File 643 (originally numbered House Study Bill 148) grew out of Governor Branstad’s proposal to move water programs from the DNR to the more business-friendly agriculture department. Branstad’s claim that the move would improve efficiencies doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Bill Ehm, water policy coordinator for the DNR, said the complexities of transferring the programs would take at least a year to complete, and would cost money. He said officials from both the DNR and Agriculture were already working together to coordinate a transition.

Ehm said he knew of no complaints about the DNR’s administration that prompted the legislation.

“In fact, we just got a review from the (federal Environmental Protection Agency) and came away with exemplary remarks in their analysis of our program,” Ehm said. “The EPA allows us to use 10 percent of their funding for administrative costs, and we only use 5 percent. I think we’ve made pretty efficient use of our federal support.”

According to Iowa Environmental Council Executive Director Marian Riggs Gelb, the U.S. EPA “recently warned that if the bill passes it would severely stress limited state and federal resources.”

The clear intent of House File 643 is to give agribusiness more leverage to block enforcement of water quality standards. The lobbyist declarations for the bill show only the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s representatives in favor. Farm Bureau has fought every attempt to regulate agricultural pollution and filed a lawsuit last year to block the DNR’s most significant water quality policy of the past decade.

The original draft of House File 643 moved all water monitoring programs from the DNR to IDALS as well. That raised red flags with Iowans who have experience in this area:

Erv Klaas, professor emeritus of Iowa State University’s department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, has participated in the DNR’s volunteer water monitoring program for nine years. He thinks both bills are “an extremely bad idea.”

“The people I talk to are really worried about (the Agriculture Department) being unable to really continue watershed assessment,” Klaas said. “Volunteers monitor 3,000 sites across the state with a minimum amount of expense from the DNR. We’re are the watchdogs; we are often the first to discover problems.”

Klaas said the bills hand down much of the burden of the added programs to local soil and water conservation districts, which are “operating on a 1994 budget,” which will also result in less water monitoring. Klaas is a commissioner for the Story County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Riggs Gelb believes that is part of the intention of the legislation.

“Part of the point is to monitor less,” she said, “and then the less data you have, the less information you have to make claims that something is an impaired waterway. If we don’t know about it, then everything’s fine.”

Extensive data collection is crucial. One section of House File 643 states,

Numerical standards shall have a preference over narrative standards when determining whether a water of the state is supporting its designated use or other classification. A narrative standard shall not constitute the basis for determining an impairment unless the department of agriculture and land stewardship identifies specific factors as to why a numeric standard is not sufficient to assure adequate water quality.

First-term Republican State Representative Brian Moore offered an amendment in response to concerns about giving Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey’s department control over water monitoring. State representatives approved Moore’s amendment during floor discussion before passing the bill. (Click here for the full bill history.) Moore’s amendment didn’t fix House File 643’s central problems, though. Jerry Peckumn, a farmer who chairs the Iowa Rivers Revival board of directors, explained in this recent legislative update:

State Representative Moore filed an amendment to make changes from last week’s bill;  the amendment leaves the $2.9M water quality monitoring at the DNR for a year.  Language in the amendment gives the IA Department of Land Stewardship (IDALS) and Water Resources Council authority to determine where and how DNR spends water quality monitoring (assessment protocol, assessment report and impaired waters list) and how to interpret and use data for assessment and prioritization decisions all will be made by IDALS.

Do you want IDALS to determine if water quality is good enough?  There are two major problems with them managing clean water in Iowa.  One, there is a inherent conflict of interest in promoting agriculture and making long term decisions on water quality.  The other is the lack of transparency within the IDALS and too many unanswered questions.  Where do project funds go and who directly benefits from funding conservation projects on private property?  The DNR is forced to be open because the citizen commission provides public oversight of the programs.

The amendments to  HF 643  – DO NOT fix the problems in the bill. The bill would leave water monitoring funding with the DNR for now…but all decisions would be made by IDALS on where and how to monitor water quality. It could mean an end to Project AWARE.

The current program managed by the DNR is now ranked 9th in the country for efficiency.  There is very little chance that this change will be efficient or more cost-efficient, and in fact, will likely cost the taxpayer more for some time to come.  It appears there is a great desire by Farm Bureau to gain more control of the clean water planning by moving development of TMDL plans (Total Maximum Daily Load of pollutants) for non-point water pollution (anything entering our streams not through a pipe) to the IDALS.  It is unprecedented by any other state to have the DNR prepare one part (point source) of the TMDL and the IDALS prepare another part of the plan-it really makes no sense if you want plans for clean water.  The Iowa DNR has registered in favor of this bill now, but you have to remember that the Governor appoints the Director of the DNR and may remove him at any time for any reason.  The Governor said on WOI Radio (link below) that he is in favor of moving the clean water programs to save money but has offered no analysis showing how those savings would be made.

Here’s the link to Branstad’s March 21 comments on Iowa Public Radio. Project AWARE is A Watershed Awareness River Expedition. Hundreds of Iowans have volunteered for that DNR program to help clean up garbage in Iowa rivers.

Advocates for environmental protection in Iowa have been sounding the alarm about this proposal for weeks. The Cedar Rapids Gazette’s editorial board commented on March 11:

The legislation smacks of retribution against an agency that has taken its lumps, fairly and unfairly, over the years. This is not part of some major new initiative to improve water quality or manage watersheds with hopes of controlling flooding. The bill doesn’t come with beefed up spending or fresh ideas.

This is about taking money and authority from an agency the House majority dislikes and giving it to one it likes better. That’s not a good enough reason to tinker with critical programs. We’ve seen no evidence presented that the bill will make water any cleaner or flooding any less likely. And it’s worth noting that many of the DNR rules and regulations now faulted by lawmakers were first approved by lawmakers.

We question whether the ag department, charged with supporting and promoting Iowa agriculture, should be in charge of policing water quality. Efforts to improve waterways and better manage watersheds aren’t always popular with agricultural interests, as the DNR has discovered. We think the ag department’s current role is inconsistent with the role of a water regulator.

Democratic leaders in the Iowa House didn’t take up those arguments. Whereas the collective bargaining bill inspired passionate Democratic speeches to the House floor, House File 643 generated relatively little discussion. The Iowa House Journal from March 23 (pdf) covers the legislative action. Democrat Vicki Lensing offered an amendment to require quarterly reports on the transfer of powers from the DNR to IDALS; that was ruled out of order. Lensing then offered an amendment to ensure continuity in data collection, which was adopted. Democrat Beth Wessel-Kroeschell withdrew an amendment on employee retention at IDALS. Moore’s amendment passed, and then the House proceeded to a final vote on the bill. The roll call shows 64 votes in favor, including all Republicans present and Democrats Deborah Berry (district 22), Helen Miller (district 49), Dan Muhlbauer (district 51), Brian Quirk (district 15), Roger Thomas (district 24), Andrew Wenthe (district 18), and John Wittneben (district 7). Several of those House Democrats also voted for a bill prohibiting secret recordings and other “interference” on Iowa farms. Rural Democrat Kurt Swaim (district 94) was absent for the vote on House File 643.

Many of those Democrats also belong to the caucus Iowa House Democrats formed late last year to focus on rural economic issues, “rural job creation, meeting Iowa’s rural infrastructure needs, and guaranteeing adequate resources for rural schools.” Berry and Lykam are exceptions, representing districts in Waterloo and Davenport, respectively. I don’t know why they would want to give the agriculture department control over water quality programs.

Bad bills for the environment sometimes made headway in the Iowa legislature even when Democrats controlled both chambers, so it’s no surprise that the Democratic minority didn’t go to the mat to fight House File 643. Nevertheless, it’s discouraging to see House Democrats unwilling to make the case against a clear assault on Iowa water quality. I’ll remember that next time a phone banker calls me seeking a donation to the House Truman Fund.

P.S. The Iowa Senate version of legislation to transfer water programs to IDALS passed the Agriculture Committee and was referred to Senate Appropriations. After House File 643 cleared the Iowa House, it was referred to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, which hasn’t yet considered it. Even if the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate blocks this bill, Governor Branstad may exercise his power to put certain programs under the jurisdiction of IDALS.

UPDATE: From the Ames Tribune on March 26:

“Even as amended, this bill has the DNR doing the actual monitoring,” Riggs Gelb said, “but the Department of Agriculture still gets to decide where, what and how much to monitor, how to evaluate water quality impairments. They would be in charge of the water quality assessment reports and the list of impaired waters required by the EPA. This is still a bad piece of legislation.” […]

Rep. Dave Deyoe (R-Nevada) voted in favor of the legislation.

“We felt the funding of these programs belonged under the Department of Agriculture,” Deyoe said, “because they are doing the work for these programs already. We felt that made more sense, and would focus more of the money on those projects, instead of in other areas and in salaries.”

This March 27 article in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier includes the Farm Bureau spin:

Rick Robinson, environmental policy advisory for the Iowa Farm Bureau, thinks the bill would result in better use of federal and state money directed to improving water quality. He said many programs geared toward farmers already are administered by IDALS. He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has put a great deal of emphasis recently on non-point source pollution, or basically all pollution that comes from water moving across land, rather than out of a pipe from a factory or city sewage system.

According to Robinson, in Iowa much of that non-point source attention goes to farms, and IDALS has expertise in providing programs to decrease pollution.

Currently two state-funded water quality programs are administered by IDALS, while the Chapter 319 program that handles about $4.4 million in federal funds for non-point source pollution falls under DNR control.

Tennessee is the only other state that gives its agriculture department responsibility over water quality programs.

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