New GOP plan for I-WILL sales tax misses mark

Pam Mackey Taylor is the Director of the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.

In 2010, about 63 percent of Iowa voters approved a state constitutional amendment creating the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The amendment stipulated that revenue from the first three-eighths of a percent of any state sales tax increase would go to the trust fund.

Companion legislation established how those funds would be allocated: 23 percent for natural resources, such as natural areas, wildlife diversity, recreation, and water resources; 20 percent for soil and water conservation; 14 percent for watershed protection; 13 percent for the Resource Enhancement and Protection fund (commonly known as REAP); 13 percent for local conservation agencies; 10 percent for trails; and 7 percent for lake restoration.

The campaign to successfully get the constitutional amendment and the legislation was called the Iowa Water and Land Legacy, or I-WILL. During the first few years after adoption of the constitutional amendment, the I-WILL coalition attempted to persuade the legislature to raise the sales tax to fund the program. But the fund remains empty, because state lawmakers have not increased the sales tax.

However, over the past three years, Governor Kim Reynolds and some Republican legislators have devised schemes to raise the sales tax while perverting the intent of the plan Iowa voters approved. The governor’s plan would have diverted almost all of the money to the so-called Nutrient Reduction Strategy (a voluntary program that has not reduced water pollution from nitrates and phosphates).

A bill now pending in the Iowa Senate (Senate File 550) would increase the sales tax, triggering the funding of the I-WILL projects. But the proposal contains several huge gotchas. 

Troubling areas in the bill include:

  • Currently the Iowa Department of Transportation funds roads through state parks. The bill would have I-WILL fund the construction, maintenance, or expansion of roads.
  • The bill changes the percentages allocated to the funds that were envisioned when I-WILL was passed. Most significantly it reduces the money allocated to REAP, a long-standing program in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
  • The Iowa Economic Development Authority would be involved in decisions where money is spent on recreation purposes. Furthermore, the scoring would be required to further the economic development policy of the state. The DNR is fully capable of determining how its funds are allocated and does not require an economic development lens in making those decisions. Protecting wildlife habitat or endangered species is important and a lofty goal over economic development and is exactly what the voters intended.
  • Decisions on expending funds will favor nutrient reduction projects, with no guarantee that those projects will indeed reduce nitrogen or phosphorus in waterways. Making matters worse, the DNR is not required to set numerical standards for water bodies along with a reasonable date that the standards must be met. So far, Iowa taxpayers have expended significant amounts of money with limited or no results in reducing nutrients in Iowa's waterways.
  • Nutrient reduction is a lofty goal for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. But it's not appropriate to force the DNR and Department of Transportation (for use in trails) to make that a top priority when they expend the I-WILL funds.
  • The bill would give higher priority to maintaining or preserving existing public lands over acquiring additional land. The Sierra Club does not support this concept, since Iowa is 47th in the nation in the percentage of the state held as public lands. Public lands are important in a state that has very little public land. The DNR lands are mostly highly erodible or floodplains which are not farmable and, thus, are not destroying opportunities for beginning farmers, as legislators allege.
  • The money allocated to the DNR for "establishment, restoration, and enhancement of state parks, state preserves, state forests, wildlife areas, wildlife habitats, native prairies, and wetlands" is being amended to include the management of those areas. The management would move the salaries and benefits of park rangers and other staff to the I-WILL account. The result would be less money available for "establishment, restoration, and enhancement" of those areas.
  • The bill would terminate the increased sales tax on January 1, 2051. But the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2010 did not include an end date for the sales tax.

These gotchas would leave less money for the original purpose of I-WILL funding, including establishing, restoring, or enhancement of state parks; recreation; wildlife diversity; improvement of water trails, rivers, and streams; and education and outreach regarding natural history and the outdoors.  

Senate File 550 lays out a scheme to reduce the money available for what Iowa voters approved, by redirecting expenditures for roads and staff to the I-WILL funds. That is unacceptable. I-WILL was designed to generate "new money" for DNR projects. That's what voters were led to believe when they approved the trust fund more than a decade ago.

It is therefore disappointing to see most of Iowa's environmental and conservation organizations are registered in support of Senate File 550, or undecided. See the lobbying declarations here.

Although it is tempting to believe in the benefit of filling the trust fund after all these years, supporters of the original I-WILL plan need to realize this bill is pulling a bait and switch.   

It is heartbreaking for Sierra Club to look at the changes that are being recommended to I-WILL, since it was Sierra Club’s work that got the ball rolling within the Natural Resources Commission, the Environmental Protection Commission, and with former DNR Director Jeff Vonk. After several years of advocacy, those efforts led to the formal drive for the vote for the constitutional amendment.

Because of the significant problems with this bill, we hope the environmental community can come together to this bill. We can do better than this.

Top photo by Pam Mackey Taylor of the cave at Wapsipinicon State Park provided by the author and published with permission.

  • A little more history on this subject

    The first bill I introduced as a freshman representative in 2003 was the original bill that started the Water Land and Legacy amendment. Yes, others joined the work but one point is that the bill always dedicated 50% of the funds to soil, conservation and water quality work.

  • A verb seems to be missing in the last paragraph...

    ...and I'd like to know if that's true, and if so, what that verb was supposed to be.

    • last paragraph

      The last sentences should read "Because of the significant issues with this bill, we hope the environmental community can come together in opposition to this bill. We can do better than this."

      • Pam Mackey Taylor, thank you for responding

        I am really torn on this. I like and respect (and belong to) conservation groups on both sides. I loathe the new formula. I can understand, however, the viewpoint that something is better than nothing and that worse formulas could well lie ahead, as Iowa keeps getting redder and redder.

        Whatever happens, I won't blame Iowa conservation groups. For me, the people responsible are the Iowa voters (and eligible voters who don't vote) who have essentially put the Iowa Farm Bureau in charge of Iowa conservation policies, and who keep essentially saying "This is what we want, and we're voting for more of it."

  • what consequences of this bill are down the road...

    I would like to read rebuttals to Pam's bill of particulars. I also have a long-term concern is that passage of this would put a stop to any and all positive outdoor recreation bills, water quality laws, public land acquisition, for years to come. This is how the legislature works. This gives political cover. Speaking of cover, this also provides little or no transparency..

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