Backers of a highly popular Iowa program that pays for trails and park expansions want to make the initiative permanent.
The Legislature this year extended REAP, the Resource Enhancement and Protection program, for two years. Otherwise, REAP would have ended July 1, 2021, under state law.
Lawmakers appropriated $12 million for REAP for next budget year, the same as it had this year.
REAP, coordinated by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, pays for parkland, trails, museums and other cultural attractions and conservation work. The program would have been rolled into Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Invest in Iowa Act, but that controversial legislation stalled in a session shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many supporters of REAP objected to Reynolds’ plan to raise the sales tax to pay for sweeping new tax cuts while also supporting REAP, water quality work and mental health programs. They claimed Reynolds’ plan offered little new money for programs while centering tax cuts on the rich.
Reynolds said the plan would provide consistent funding for outdoor recreation, conservation and mental health while allowing offsetting cuts in property taxes.
Reynolds’ bill in part was an attempt to address a perennial issue, Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, or IWILL. In 2010, 63% of voters approved a constitutional amendment to set up a protected fund to address water quality, conservation and outdoor needs. The fund has remained empty because lawmakers have declined to approve the 3/8ths of 1% sales tax that would generate an estimated $180 million a year.
Pam Mackey Taylor, director of the Iowa Chapter of Sierra Club, said while she is happy lawmakers approved two more years of REAP, it is time to permanently extend the program at full $20 million a year funding.
“I wish they would have extended it beyond 2023,” Mackey Taylor said. “It’s a popular program. It benefits every county.”
Mackey Taylor said Sierra Club supports the permanent extension of REAP through the sales tax, as long as lawmakers adopt the original sales tax allocation formula negotiated by a broad-based committee before the 2010 voter referendum. Some lawmakers have proposed changes pushed by Farm Bureau and other agriculture organizations to shift more money to farmers working on conservation projects and less on trails.
REAP has helped expand parks in a state that ranks in the bottom five for amount of public land per capita, Mackey Taylor said. It has aided conservation, and has preserved museums and cultural attractions.
“It’s a good program that needs to be extended permanently,” Mackey Taylor said. “It has been authorized for $20 million a year, but it’s been chronically underfunded.”
The nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, which represents dozens of organizations and individuals, also called for a permanent extension.
“While the state still has quite a ways to go to get back to the financial commitment to water quality and outdoor recreation captured in the IWILL legislation, the choice to continue funding existing programs was a solid step in the right direction,” the council wrote in a blog.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation noted that about a dozen of its projects rely on REAP grants each year. The program is run through a network of local panels that help guide the spending.
State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said REAP will remain long into the future no matter how it is funded. He considered getting a status quo budget in a pandemic-rocked budget year a win.
“The budget, given the revenue loss, was status quo for everything, which included REAP,” Bolkcom said. “If you got status quo, you were lucky in the current environment with uncertain revenue.”
“There is little doubt that REAP has been the most successful conservation and environmental funding program we’ve had over the last 20 years,” Bolkcom said. “We never funded it fully. It does so many good things for people all over Iowa. There just isn’t enough of it.”
Alex Murphy, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said DNR is “pleased and thankful to the Legislature for extending REAP. We believe it is a successful program and we’re glad it’ll keep going.”