2nd District candidates debate climate change, environmental regulations

By: - October 27, 2020 3:44 pm

The 2nd Congressional District candidates want to see infrastructure improvements. Shown is Lock and Dam 11 in the Mississippi River at Dubuque. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The candidates in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District race differ on whether the nation needs more environmental regulation or less. 

However, both said they hope farmers will be paid to help fight climate change with plantings that can sweep carbon from the air. 

Democrat Rita Hart, a former state senator, wants to make sure environmental regulations aren’t rolled back. Easing the regulatory load on businesses has been a priority for President Donald Trump, a Republican who argues the rules go too far and hurt the economy.  

Republican state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks said Trump did the right thing reconsidering certain regulations that can weigh on a place such as Iowa, where farmers have argued that any wet spot in the fields has been called a river or lake by federal regulators. 

Miller-Meeks and Hart are running for the southeastern Iowa seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack.

Candidates split on regulations, agree on farmer incentives

In an interview, Hart said making sure environmental regulations are strict enough and addressing climate change go together.

“We need to be talking about what we can do to make some headway on the environment and climate change,” Hart said. “It’s crucial that we get this right, and so, again, we can’t go backwards.”

Hart said farmers can provide part of the solution to climate change by planting vegetation that will sweep heat-trapping carbon from the atmosphere, while reducing polluted runoff into streams. She supports payments to landowners for that work.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to me that we can provide some solutions here with agriculture,” Hart said. “And I’d like to see farmers take a stronger role in the policy when it comes to figuring out what to do next.” 

Miller-Meeks said Trump did the right thing easing environmental regulations, including the Waters of the United States rules that limited what land farmers could use for crops. 

“There should be a concern to everyone when the talk about ‘navigable waterways’ becomes ‘any water that’s on your property,’” Miller-Meeks said in an interview. “That was an impediment to farmers and our agricultural economy.”

On climate change, Miller-Meeks said even after Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, intended to help the world’s nations fight climate change, “We have made tremendous strides, with even some reductions in carbon emissions beyond those of countries that are in the Paris Accord.”

In an Iowa PBS debate Sept. 24, Miller-Meeks agreed with Hart that incentives for farmers could be a key tool in fighting climate change.

Another way to attack global warming would be to support energy sources other than fossil fuels, Miller-Meeks said in an interview.

“We need to continue to address how to be more environmentally friendly, and how to do research and development into energy initiatives that will allow us to have a cleaner environment, cleaner water, and also allow our economy to flourish and grow,” Miller-Meeks said. 

Candidates waffle on gas tax increase

At the Iowa PBS debate, both candidates were asked if they would support a gas tax increase to pay for roads and other infrastructure projects. Neither directly answered the question, but both acknowledged that more money is needed.

“I think we’re going to have to look at a multi-faceted approach,” Miller-Meeks said. 

One reason: As people drive less in general, and drive more fuel-efficient cars, that means they spend less on gasoline and the taxes that come with it. 

Iowa state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is running for Congress in the 2nd District. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

“With people driving more electric vehicles we do know that the amount of the revenue that we get from the fuel tax may be decreasing,” Miller-Meeks said. She added that she would oppose a per-mile charge for electric vehicles.

But there may be other answers, Miller-Meeks said. “Do we charge a registration fee for electric vehicles, or do you tack that onto a utility bill because they’re on the road but they’re not paying for a fuel tax?”

Whatever financial instrument is used, Miller-Meeks said she wants to make sure rural Iowans, and not just those living in urban areas, benefit from infrastructure projects.

“Too often you increase a tax, you increase the funding in order to pay for infrastructure,  and it happens in Des Moines or it happens in a large city and it doesn’t happen out in rural Iowa,” Miller-Meeks said in the debate. “We had a road in Ottumwa on the way to the high school that had a big sinkhole in it and for two years that was barricaded and you drove around it. That’s unconscionable.”

Iowa is a good example of a state needs significant infrastructure improvements, Miller-Meeks said. “We have roads, we have bridges, we have locks and dams along the Mississippi River which are important for our agricultural economy that need to be repaired,” she added.

Broadband is another high priority the Legislature has tried to address, but the federal government needs to ramp up, too, Miller-Meeks said. 

Hart said she is “open to that conversation” on a gas tax increase.

Former Iowa state Sen. Rita Hart is running for Congress in the 2nd District. (Photo courtesy of Hart campaign)

“When we passed that gas tax here in the state of Iowa that was a bill that took a long time and had to get a lot of consensus in both houses, in both parties,” Hart said. “And as a result we’ve seen the improvements to our roads and our bridges here in the state of Iowa and we’re still seeing the results of that.”

The Legislature increased the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon in 2015, which was projected to raise more than $200 million a year for projects. Gov. Terry Branstad signed the bill

Hart said there are other solutions besides the gas tax, but she didn’t list them. The needs are great, she added.

“We have some big infrastructure problems across the United States when it comes to our roads and to our bridges,” Hart said. “Now, I think that there are some other solutions we could be looking at and I think that would be a worthwhile discussion as we see how we can tie a bigger infrastructure bill together.”

At the same Iowa PBS debate, reporter Erin Murphy of the Cedar Rapids Gazette asked the candidates if they believed climate change was involved in the August derecho and other severe weather in Iowa. 

Yes, Hart said. 

“First of all, we need to accept the science that says yes, climate change is real, and that we’re going to have some certain effects from that and we’ve seen that,” Hart said. “We’ve got more and more events that are happening and they are more and more severe and I think the science is clear that the forest fires that we’re seeing out in California, that is an effect of climate change.”

Miller-Meeks agreed that climate change is affecting storm patterns. She said the federal government should, among other things, make sure the nation’s disaster response is adequate. 

“There are certainly things on the federal level we can do in preparedness,” said Miller-Meeks, a military veteran. “We do have a Department of Homeland Security within our state and we have county emergency management and there is pre-positioning on help with our National Guard that comes in at a very early time.”

The derecho was a rare event, but floods have become more likely, Miller-Meeks said. 

Iowa’s growing mix of energy sources that lessens use of fossil fuels to generate power will help address climate change, Miller-Meeks said. Iowa is one of the nation’s highest per capita generators of power from wind turbines, and is looking to expand solar installations. 

“We’re in a very unusual state in that we have wind, solar and we do have an agricultural economy that has really helped” by leaving some acres in forest and other vegetation that sweep carbon, Miller-Meeks said at the debate. 

Hart, Miller-Meeks support ethanol, oppose waivers

In an interview, Hart said she supports the full federal mandate for oil refineries to buy ethanol, which is made from corn, Iowa’s biggest agricultural product. “It’s disappointing to me that we have to continue to have this fight and that waivers are granted,” Hart said. “That’s obviously because Big Oil constitutes too big of a voice at the table.”

Miller-Meeks said she also supports ethanol. “With changes in agriculture and farming practices, renewable fuels have become even less of a deleterious effect upon the environment, and they make more environmental sense, if you will,” Miller-Meeks said in an interview. 

She added that the waivers granted to refineries that claimed blending ethanol is a financial hardship to them were meant for small refineries but have been considered for larger ones. 

The election is Nov. 3. See additional coverage of this race and others.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.