Angelisa Belden is communications and development director for the Iowa Environmental Council. -promoted by Laura Belin
Iowans were up in arms this week in reaction to two bad bills aimed at restricting acquisition or expansion of public lands. House File 542, introduced by Republican State Representative David Seick, and Senate Study Bill 1221, introduced by GOP State Senator Ken Rozenboom, would severely limit the ability for state agencies, cities and counties, and private citizens to acquire or donate land for public projects.
In a state with just 2 percent of land in public holding, these bills were a drastic overreach to answer a problem that doesn’t exist.
Subcommittee Meeting 1: HF 542
Busloads of people arrived in Des Moines on March 4 and lined the walls three deep for the subcommittee hearing on the House bill.
The lawmakers on the subcommittee–Republicans Rob Bacon and Tom Jeneary and Democrat Scott Ourth–noted they had never received as many calls, emails, or contacts as they did on this legislation. Bacon opened the floor to the only group in attendance interested in speaking in support of HF 542: the Iowa Farm Bureau. (The Farm Bureau and Iowa Cattlemen’s Association were the only organizations lobbying for this bill; about three dozen non-profit groups or government entities registered against it.)
The Farm Bureau lobbyists argued that farmers have to unfairly battle against the state to purchase private land. They claimed this bill was the desire of their members. Imagine their surprise when one legislator stated he had received calls from Farm Bureau members who were against the bill.
The Iowa Environmental Council’s issues with the bill aligned with that of the hundreds of conservationists, landowners, naturalists, and Iowans in attendance. In addition, the council was concerned about the potential impacts for source water protection. The bill would restrict the use of state funds to purchase land for nonpoint ag source water protection, a key tool communities can use to protect their drinking water sources.
“Communities should be able to decide how to best protect their own drinking water sources without a restriction like this from the state,” says Alicia Vasto, Water Policy Specialist for the Iowa Environmental Council. “Taking away this option would limit local control, hamper progress made by the DNR to help Iowans protect their drinking water through watershed improvement and source water protection programs, and ultimately threaten public health.”
Those in attendance heard the voices of the people, sharing stories of incredible conservation efforts that expand beautiful public spaces and clean and protect our water. Those people achieved a rare win in our current legislative climate: the subcommittee acknowledged the bill’s problems and chose not to advance HF 542.
Subcommittee Meeting 2: SSB 1221
Just two hours later, the buoyed crowd packed the room for the Senate subcommittee hearing on SSB 1221.
This bill, narrower in scope than HF 542, called to eliminate the Iowa Income Tax Credit for Charitable Contributions of Conservation Lands and discontinue the use of the State Revolving Fund to purchase land that will become public. Senators were not afraid to label this the “Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation Bill” and call out the conservation organization as the “only private entity that can access these funds.”
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation President Joe McGovern spoke at the hearing, saying, “The State Revolving Fund is public dollars specifically set aside for water quality projects. We are partnering with our public partners to use these dollars for public water quality projects. When we buy land that benefits water quality, that benefits everybody.”
Misinformation abounded in the meeting, and attendees did their best to address it. Lands acquired for public use do not come off the tax rolls. In fact, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources pays taxes on much of the public land they own, including more than $1 million paid to counties in fiscal year 2019. Private entities are not taking funds away from cities and counties looking to do projects – millions of dollars are sitting in the fund unused. Furthermore, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is not the only entity that can use these funds – many other organizations can too.
What’s next for the Senate bill
The bill advanced out of the subcommittee Monday with the caveat to remove the tax credit language, a win for those in attendance, farmers looking for ways to utilize unfarmable land, and all Iowans.
The next day, the full Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee reviewed the amended bill, which grandfathers in projects using the State Revolving Fund through July 1, but eliminates that funding option after that date. It will be eligible for debate in the full Senate.
Although the amendments are significant improvements, the bill still poses a critical threat for conservation and water quality efforts in Iowa. The Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the council’s other member organizations, partners, and supporters will continue to call on legislators, urging Senate leaders not to bring the bill to the floor.
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Photos by Angelisa Belden from the Iowa House and Senate subcommittee meetings on March 4 are used with permission.