Conservation groups celebrate long-awaited outdoors funding proposal

By: - February 1, 2022 7:38 pm

The Raccoon River is a major source of Greater Des Moines tap water. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

Conservation groups praised a Senate Republican tax proposal that would fund the Iowa Water and Land Legacy project, an initiative to protect Iowa’s natural resources.

Lawmakers approved the creation of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2008 and 2009. The next year, Iowa voters amended the state’s constitution to include a framework for the fund: The next time the state passed a sales tax increase, three-eights of a cent of the tax would go toward water quality, outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation.

The issue: Iowa hasn’t passed a statewide sales tax increase since then, leaving the fund empty for over 12 years.

Senate Republicans proposed a tax plan this year that would convert a 1-cent local option sales tax — which is already in place in most Iowa communities — to a statewide sales tax. That would start to finally funnel money toward the fund, commonly referred to as IWILL.

Representatives for conservation, hunting and business groups spoke in favor of Senate Study Bill 3074 in a Tuesday subcommittee meeting.

“After 12 years, our 15,000 members in the state are very excited to see IWILL included in this bill,” said Josh Divan, state coordinator for Pheasants Forever, a group of hunters and conservationists.

Several lobbyists tied the proposal to the workforce shortage, arguing investments in the state’s natural resources would draw new workers to the state.

“We believe that the trust is an immense opportunity to immediately invest in water quality, agricultural conservation, outdoor recreation, trails and the quality of life assets that make Iowa an attractive place to live and work,” said Anna Gray, lobbyist for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

The Iowa Chamber Alliance, a group that represents Iowa’s chambers of commerce, concurred.

“What we hear repeatedly is that quality of life projects is what people are looking for from where they want to live, work and play,” said Dustin Miller, executive director of the alliance.

Not every party was ready to sign off on the plan, however.

Pam Mackey-Taylor, chapter director of Iowa’s Sierra Club, said the proposal would prioritize the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a water quality initiative, “at the expense of all the other items we’re supposed to be funding with IWILL.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat sitting on the bill’s subcommittee, also raised concerns with the current proposal. He argued that urban residents would shoulder a larger burden of the sales tax, but may not see equal payout from the program.

“I’m concerned that the recreational opportunities that are going to be afforded by this new revenue going to cities and local communities is paltry,” Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a statewide 1-cent sales tax increase in 2020. Her “Invest in Iowa” plan was unpopular with Senate Republicans. She dropped it when the COVID-19 pandemic hit later that year, and she declined to take up the plan again in 2021 or 2022.

Lobbyists ask House lawmakers to add IWILL to their plan

The House tax plan, House Study Bill 626, does not include IWILL funding. Several lobbyists asked House lawmakers Tuesday to add a similar provision to their bill.

Dan Cohen, executive director of the Buchanan County Conservation Board, said he believes the funding would “go with some of the stated goals of tax reform.”

“This long-awaited funding of the constitution provisions for the trust fund would revitalize rural Iowa by bringing in more investments into parks, waters, natural areas, all the things that attract people to our communities,” Cohen said.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation also requested IWILL be added to the final package, calling it “a game-changer.”

The House and Senate bills advanced to the Ways and Means Committee in each chamber. The IWILL issue and other differences between the bills and the governor’s plan will have to be resolved before a bill is enacted.

Read more: How do Iowa’s Republican tax plans compare?

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.