From left: Democratic State Representatives Austin Baeth, Molly Buck, Josh Turek, Elinor Levin, Sharon Steckman, and Adam Zabner. Screenshot from video posted to Facebook on February 8.
“When I joined Environmental Protection, I never envisioned that I would be talking about a raccoon bounty, but here we are,” Democratic State Representative Josh Turek said on February 7, while the House Environmental Protection Committee considered the only bill on the agenda that day.
As they weighed in on the bill, Democrats voiced broader frustrations about the committee’s failure to engage with any of Iowa’s serious environmental challenges.
Republican State Representative Dean Fisher introduced House Study Bill 636 in his capacity as Environmental Protection Committee chair. The bill would direct the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create a raccoon bounty program, with the goal of bringing down the raccoon population. While making his case during the February 7 meeting, Fisher said he didn’t know how much it would cost for the agency to run the program and set up sites in each county where people could turn in raccoon tails monthly.
Normally, an obscure bill wouldn’t spark intense controversy in an Iowa House or Senate committee meeting. But this panel doesn’t meet as often as many other standing committees, and rarely discusses any legislation, period. Fisher brought no bills up for consideration during 2023. The raccoon bounty bill was only the second to come before the Environmental Protection Committee this year; on February 1, members advanced a measure on use capacity of campground septic systems.
So House Democrats seized the opportunity. State Representative Josh Turek spoke immediately after Fisher, having been assigned to the subcommittee that considered HSB 636. He disagreed with the proposal, saying his research and conversations with DNR staff revealed a “consensus that these bounty programs do not work and are not effective.” About 20 percent of the tails being brought in under South Dakota’s program were not even from raccoons.
Turek added that the bill is “fiscally irresponsible” and represents “what people despise about state and national government right now.” He argued that lawmakers were “wasting our time to put an appropriation on something like this in a state where we’re defunding water quality sensors” and not funding research on childhood cancer. If the state wanted to spend money in a “meaningful” way to address the raccoon problem, Turek said, it would focus on increasing habitat for natural predators like red foxes.
State Representative Austin Baeth, the committee’s ranking Democrat, spoke next. He said he would oppose the bill because “it’s embarrassing that of all the multitude of environmental problems that we need to fix in this state,” the committee was focusing on this issue. Baeth noted that the Environmental Protection Committee met only four times during the fourteen-week 2023 legislative session. This year, the committee has met twice in five weeks.
And we’re talking about raccoon tails?
Water quality—whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. People are concerned about our environment.
They’re concerned about the things that give them cancer.
They’re concerned about climate change. They’re concerned about all these climate disasters we’re having.
They’re concerned about losing half our topsoil.
Guys, this is our charge, that the entire state has sent us here to do, and this committee has done nothing to actually protect the environment.
Baeth said he’d heard Republicans say privately they are also concerned about water quality and other problems. Having none of those issues even on the committee’s agenda “is a disservice to Iowans who gave us the charge of protecting the land that we hold most dear. For that reason alone I’m opposing this bill.”
State Representative Sharon Steckman is among the longest-serving House Democrats and has been on this committee for most of her time in the legislature. She recalled that presenters used to come in to talk about major issues, such as topsoil loss or air quality. She concluded, “It shouldn’t be called the Environmental Degradation Committee, it should be called the Environmental Protection Committee.”
State Representative Adam Zabner reminded colleagues of the December 2022 explosion at the C6-Zero recycling plant in Marengo. The DNR had not issued a permit for the plant, but the agency followed what’s called a “coach to compliance” strategy, “which means that even when we know someone’s doing something illegal, we don’t do very much about it. And we haven’t had a single conversation about that in this committee. I find that really, really disappointing.”
Zabner pointed out that state funding for the DNR has declined, and passing this bill would require the agency to set up access points in all 99 counties for people to turn in raccoon tails. Meanwhile, “there’s weeks in the summer that folks in my district who want to swim are advised not even to get into the water at Lake Macbride. I just find that shameful.”
When it was her turn, State Representative Elinor Levin pondered whether those who were upset that the Environmental Protection Committee “considered zero bills” last year would be more upset that the panel was considering this one. “There are so many things that we could be doing. And I’m not talking about extremist, hippie agendas. I’m talking about basic, common-sense environmental protection.” Things like looking into Iowa’s rising cancer rates, our topsoil loss, ways to incentivize regenerative practices that would keep people healthy.
In his closing comments on the bill, Fisher defended the concept of a raccoon bounty and asserted that its fiscal impact would be reduced, since the program would bring in revenue.
Addressing his Democratic colleagues, Fisher said, “I understand your frustration about what this committee is doing and why this bill is in this committee. I don’t make the assignments. That’s made by the Speaker’s office, and here we are.”
Committee members advanced HSB 636 on a mostly party-line vote, with GOP State Representative Brad Sherman joining Democrats to oppose the bill. Sherman declined to answer Bleeding Heartland’s question about his reasons for voting no.
HOW THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION COMMITTEE ONCE FUNCTIONED
Fisher was correct that House Speaker Pat Grassley decides where to assign bills. CLARIFICATION: But Fisher has the power to introduce committee bills, like the raccoon bounty proposal. And his comment didn’t address why the committee he leads has spent so little time working on environmental problems. Fisher controls the agenda and determines what will happen at meetings.
Steckman’s memory is accurate. For many years, the Environmental Protection Committee regularly heard from officials and stakeholders about topics related to Iowa’s land, soil, and air. Meeting agendas and minutes show that that was true not only during the late 2000s, when Democrats held an Iowa House majority, but also in the early years after Republicans gained control of the chamber following the 2010 elections.
State Representative Steve Olson chaired the Environmental Protection Committee in 2011 and 2012. Guest speakers during his first year included Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, DNR Director Roger Lande, and leaders of the Water Resource Coordinating Council and National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. The following year, various agriculture or DNR officials addressed the committee, as did the director of Iowa State University’s Bioeconomy Institute.
State Representative Lee Hein led the Environmental Protection Committee for the next legislative session. Presenters in 2013 covered topics ranging from watershed improvements to the application of manure on frozen ground, the DNR’s water discharge permitting system, and the voluntary “nutrient reduction strategy” championed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Committee members heard about most of those subjects again in 2014, along with Iowa’s impaired waters and the DNR’s pollution prevention and air quality programs.
Megan Jones took over as committee chair in 2015. Presenters to the committee during her first year in that position included not only DNR officials supervising land, air, and water quality programs, but also experts from other institutions. A hydrologist from the Iowa Geological Survey focused on “Nitrate and Phosphorus Trends in Iowa’s Rivers.” The president of the nonprofit Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation discussed Iowa’s (still unfunded) Water and Land Legacy trust fund. A representative of the Iowa League of Cities discussed “prospects for water quality trading” between urban and rural communities.
No one could say the Iowa House accomplished much on the environmental front during the first six years of the GOP majority. The Environmental Protection Committee sent few bills to the full House for consideration. But at least the panel met regularly, and its members were able to learn from subject matter experts.
Those days are long gone.
A STEADY RETREAT FROM RELEVANCE
A noticeable shift in focus began in 2017, when State Representative Ross Paustian took over as Environmental Protection Committee chair. Paustian is a past president of the Scott County Farm Bureau and Scott County Pork Producers.
Only two speakers presented to the committee in 2017, and only two bills came up for consideration. One was not controversial, relating to the solid waste environmental management systems program. The other was a “bottle bill” that would have drastically changed Iowa’s recycling programs. The environmental community universally opposed that bill; grocery stores and some other business interests supported it.
Paustian convened the committee just five times in 2018; the last occurred in early February. Only one of those meetings involved outside speakers, who presented on waste and recycling programs. The committee advanced two non-controversial bills that year, both proposed by the DNR and related to the agency’s programs.
Fisher (a fifth-generation farmer from Tama County) followed Paustian’s lead after becoming chair of Environmental Protection for the 2019 legislative session. He canceled more scheduled meetings than he convened. Only one meeting that year involved outside speakers, both of whom discussed container recycling programs. The panel advanced two non-controversial bills the DNR had introduced.
The COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupted the Iowa legislature’s work, beginning in mid-March 2020. But it didn’t affect Fisher’s panel—he was already canceling scheduled meetings in late February and early March of that year. One guest speaker from the DNR spoke about water monitoring, and the committee voted on two minor bills, neither of which was later brought to the House floor.
The Environmental Protection Committee set modern records for inaction over the next two years. Fisher invited no guest speakers and convened just two meetings in 2021 and one meeting in 2022. Three minor bills advanced unanimously; one later became law.
As mentioned above, the committee considered no legislation in 2023. Three of the four meetings were devoted to expert presentations on carbon sequestration or other aspects of CO2 pipelines, a topic that interests Fisher and many other rural landowners.
HOW WOULD DEMOCRATS RUN THE COMMITTEE?
“What do you think is more important: cleaning up Iowa’s water, or killing more raccoons?” Baeth asked in a social media video recorded shortly after the February 7 meeting. He explained that he has no power as ranking member. Rather, the power lies with the committee chair, “in this case Representative Dean Fisher, who apparently has been placed there to stop any bill that would have any sort of meaningful impact in protecting our environment. Those bills go in the trash can.”
What would Democrats do if they were running this committee? Several lawmakers talked about it in a Facebook video.
State Representative Molly Buck called for new legislation to address Iowa’s “atrocious” water quality. Turek agreed that water quality is “enormously important.” He would also love to look into soil quality, lack of regulation of pesticides, and why Iowa has the nation’s second-highest cancer rate and is the only state where the cancer rate is increasing.
Levin is very concerned about the growing number of extreme weather events in Iowa. Steckman noted that like many parts of Iowa, her area is suffering from a drought. That lowers the water level of lakes, and “they start to smell, because they’re polluted.”
Zabner recounted his recent meeting with a police officer who was first to respond to the explosion in Marengo. The DNR did nothing, despite knowing the facility had no permit, “because we don’t have the right types of regulation. People were hurt […] It’s really disappointing to me, we’re passing bills about shooting raccoons, and we can’t even have a conversation about what happened in Marengo.”
Levin chimed in: “at the moment, all we’re doing is considering people’s pet projects—not what’s going to actually be good for Iowans.”
Critics like Chris Jones and Silvia Secchi have justifiably argued that many Iowa Democratic politicians pander to and raise money from powerful agricultural interests, and therefore don’t champion policies that would address our state’s biggest soil and water problems. Democrats do introduce good environmental bills in the Iowa House and Senate every year—State Representative Chuck Isenhart has been among the most active in this area. But many bills that would strengthen environmental protection or impose more regulations on conventional agriculture have only a few co-sponsors (see here, here, here, and here).
Iowa House and Senate Democrats have held several news conferences lately to highlight legislation, but those bills focused on reproductive rights, economic well-being, college costs, and health care access, not environmental issues.
The outcry from Democrats last week may signal that some lawmakers in the minority party intend to be more “loud and proud” about the need to clean up pollution that threatens human health and Iowa’s natural resources.
They’ll probably need to find some venue other than the Environmental Protection Committee, though. After the February 7 meeting adjourned, Democratic State Representative Bob Kressig asked whether the committee’s work was done for the year. Fisher said he didn’t know.