John Norwood

Comments on the governor’s Invest in Iowa Act

Mar 09, 2020

Additional Thoughts for Prairie Fan

I think we’re on the same page for a good portion of this discussion:

1) I don’t know the specifics of the funding, but I have a sense of the magnitude of the funding we need to begin to make a dent. Start with $50-$100 million annually.

2) I would agree the NRS isn’t a strategy. It’s a menu at best. And a menu without a vision. We need to focus on more than simply reducing nitrogen. Nitrogen is the indicator of a system out of balance.

3) I agree we should have more input into the design of wetlands and other publicly funded programs and investments. I think care and interest plays a big role in outcomes and performance. It’s one of the reasons why I think we want to involve county parks in designing, locating and maintaining our green assets. They can likely do a better job than expecting individual landowners to be experts.

4) Ding Darling spoke about “duck factories” and the idea that wildfowl is a crop produced “thinly.” Another way of talking about distributed wetlands, nearly a 100 years ago. Maybe we can now begin to realize that vision while we think about building diversity and resiliency back into our working landscapes.

Thanks again for your commentary. It’s very important to bring diverse viewpoints to the table to produce better, more robust solutions.

Comments on the governor’s Invest in Iowa Act

Mar 08, 2020

Response to Prairie Fan

Good observations, Prairie Fan.

I see a portion of the sales tax money going for improvements to the drainage district (DD) that deliver PUBLIC BENEFITS including improving water quality, such as by installing breakpoint and tile zone wetlands that can filter nitrogens and pathogens from tiling and surface flow, and provide habitat and flood storage.

Rough numbers, of the 23 million acres that we farm to corn and beans, AgSolver estimates about 2.5 million acres are not profitable. I could see 250,000-500,000 acres being converted to wetland, targeted CRP and targeted 50 and 100 year flood storage, a good portion of which could be re-engineered to tie into our DD infrastructure, as well as the tiling that is not part of a state chartered DD.

Another chunk of that land is likely highly erodible land that should be converted back to pasture or other more productive uses. It turns out in Polk County, we have more acreage now in row crop than we did in 1950. How did that happen? We converted pasture and other marginal lands to row crops. We need to begin to do the opposite.

Some of those wetlands might be publicly owned by county parks districts as is the case in Floyd County. In fact, as we grow the base of wetland acres, it might make sense for County Parks departments to maintain these wetland systems (whether underlying fee is public or private) vs. having each farmer try and be an expert. I could see a series of contracts where the County Parks District is the provider of choice for those who want to outsource maintenance as we do with 50% of our row crop production.

While it is true public roads are open to the public, the vast majority of county roads are used by a small portion of people, and usually for the benefit of landowners needing access to their land — inputs in and crops out. We all recognize the importance of roads and we are willing to take land out of production to build and maintain roads. We also have built a road network using systems thinking and we don’t expect each landowner to design and maintain there own section of road.

These roads and bridges are typically maintained by user fees (gas tax) and I could see a similar approach for drainage districts where over time we broaden the tax on the production and distribution of anhydrous to all users or conveyors of nitrogen.and place those monies in a dedicated fund that mitigates nitrogen and other contaminants. We could have one big fund, or a county-by-county fund so money that is collected is spent locally, or a combination.

Buy a bag of fertilizer at Lowe’s and you contribute to the fund. Add some tiling, the sales tax revenue collected on the tiling goes into the fund. Operate a confinement and the volume of manure is assessed a fee every year and that goes into the fund. The improvement of the DD in terms of drainage capacity (bigger pipes), well that function should probably be paid for by the current system of assessments. The expansion of the fertilizer user fee could be used to underwrite improvements that provide a range of local or downstream public benefits.

You’re right at the present, most DD don’t want to do improvements that cost money and don’t improve profitability (which describes most of these PUBLIC BENEFITS we want). So, we need to align the financial incentives in such a way that these DD district improvement opportunities can be a “good news” opportunity vs. a bad news letter in the mail.

If we can align the incentives and approach districts as a system and get collective buy-in, such as making decisions where the wetland systems can go collectively, we may begin to discover there are new design solutions that don’t entail just sending all the water downstream but distributing it and holding as much of it as possible within the DD for aquifer and groundwater recharge, irrigation, etc. Of course, that may work in certain areas and not others.

As we re-align an array of public subsidies to produce and optimize new outputs we desire beyond commodity crop production, I’m hopeful we will begin to think about the “highest and best use” for each acre. It’s a fundamental concept we use in real estate and land use planning, and one that could be adapted for our agricultural lands but not without a good deal of discussion, learning and some course corrections, I’m sure. The important point to me is we need to get started in a serious way. We need to have a vision for where we want to go. And a series of strategies for how we will get from A to B. We have a big job ahead.

How to create activist judges

Feb 22, 2019


Thanks for the clarification. I don’t think having attorneys making up half the commission which selects the finalists is as good as having an elected body at a sufficiently high number confirm the nomination by a governor. I like our federal system which was modeled after my home state of Massachusetts. The unfortunate recent history of the US Senate eliminated the supermajority in the Senate by rule. If we are going to change this process, and I’m not in favor of the governor picking more commission members, I think we toss it out entirely for the reason I mentioned and make it a nomination and confirmation process. I don’t like the idea of a select number of lawyers having undue influence in nominating colleagues in their profession. I think there are better ways to identify candidates that have the personal and legal qualities we would like to see without the potential negative baggage and the “campaigning” that goes on under our current system with applicants and nominees running around the state to meet and greet “important people.” If we considered such a system in 1959/61 it may be time, again, to look at the benefits of such an approach vs. what we have now or what is being proposed, which is a step backward, IMO..

How to create activist judges

Feb 21, 2019

Iowa Bar as Filter for Judicial Candidates

There are several fundamental problems with having the Iowa Bar serve as a screen for nominees and this process as it now functions:

1) Potential or Actual Conflict of Interest. The Iowa bar and its members are the same people that are presenting cases before the judges. So having them make nominations can lead to influence peddling within the profession. We already have seen problems within the profession here in Iowa and nationally. Lawyers are not got at regulating lawyers just as doctors are not good at regulating doctors. Or any profession in general. It’s economics and self interest above the public good.
2) The Iowa Bar is not an elected body. So having this group play an outsized role in the nomination of judges doesn’t mean we will have a less politized process, it just means the politics may have more to do with the politics of litigation which can impact you and me if we find ourselves in the judicial system.
3) If the objective of the process, is selecting more “center” judges, then a better solution is senate confirmation by a super majority of the Iowa senate. This would also eliminate the inefficiency of an application process that requires applicants to spend a lot of time applying for a position that may have a very low probability of success.
Thank you.

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