The holidays and all the excitement of family visits, extra goodies, lights and good cheer are already fading into what seems a distant past. I suppose it’s a sad testament to the rapidly shifting news cycle and our ever-shortening attention span. Last week’s news, either good or bad, is old news and rapidly forgotten as new stories demand our attention. The speeches and ceremony of a new state legislative session are pretty much done. What’s left is hard work and lots of it. Important issues need to be addressed and solutions agreed upon in the next few rapidly flying weeks. It’s an election year, too. The time scale is even more compressed than usual because legislators want to get busy on their reelection campaigns. Party bosses (who control far too much of what goes on) may block debate on important issues in order to free their members to campaign sooner.
It’s really no surprise that we’re still trying to come up with some mutually-agreed-upon way to fund conservation issues in Iowa. Iowa has been consistent in its lack of attention to this issue for decades. Iowa’s conservation budget remains where it has been – among the weakest in the nation as a percentage of the state’s total budget. Early predictions are that this legislative session will lead to little or little or no growth. More cuts in funding are likely for a many public agencies and institutions, including our three state colleges, public schools, mental health, public safety and, of course, conservation. Tax cuts in recent years sadly haven’t resulted in new revenues to address public needs here in Iowa. The stock market has soared to record highs in the past year, but Iowans are still waiting for the promised economic gains that will to allow us to move forward on a range of important local issues.
Many Iowans seem to have forgotten how long it’s been since a viable alternative for conservation funding was proposed. It’s worth reminding people that bipartisan work began on a way to sustainably fund conservation work in Iowa way back in 2006, when the legislature appointed the Sustainable Funding Advisory Committee. The committee was broad-based, with urban and rural input. It included some of the top people of the day in conservation, education, agriculture and industry. Their work led to the legislature twice voting (2008 and 2009) to place a referendum on the ballot to allow the people of Iowa to create a dedicated trust fund for conservation, if that’s what they wanted. The people overwhelmingly voted for a constitutional amendment that did exactly that in 2010. The issue passed with 63 percent of the vote, indicating strong statewide bipartisan support. The legislature has never allowed the 3/8 cent sales tax increase that was called for to fund the trust, despite repeated attempts over the years to do so, and the trust fund remains empty yet today. A 2017 poll indicated that public support to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund has increased and now stands at 67 percent. The question again this year is whether the remaining 33 percent of Iowans, who either don’t care or are against funding the trust, will prevail.
It’s not that Iowa hasn’t made progress on some of its pressing conservation issues. We’re now one of the top states in sustainable energy production (wind farms). Acres planted with winter cover crops are slowly increasing and fall tillage that leaves exposed soil more vulnerable to erosion is decreasing. A few lakes, like our local Hickory Grove Lake, are seeing major restoration work. More lakes and waterways have been added to those listed as impaired every year, though. It’s likely that even more would be, but the DNR doesn’t have funds to monitor them or do the necessary field testing. There are still no standards to measure against to see if what we’re doing is actually making a difference. And the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” grew to its largest on record in 2017. Iowa is far from alone in adding to that problem, but we remain one of the major contributors to the nutrient pollution that causes it.
I don’t envy the workload that our legislators and the governor face in the next few weeks, but they were sent to “The Hill” to address the needs of “we, the people.” Will short-term economic issues, election concerns or the long-term needs of the people and the land prevail in their thinking and votes? We’ll know very soon.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.