The 2017 session of the Iowa Legislature is grinding toward an end, and it’s been a tough year. There’s a big budget problem – again. There isn’t enough money to fund the various needs and wants of the people. One side, as always, says the problem is that we spend too much. The other side, as always, says that the state’s revenue streams are no longer adequate to cover needed expenses. The ongoing blame game makes effective, well-balanced legislation nearly impossible. Compromise is seen as weakness that is likely to anger “the base” of each political viewpoint. Neither side seems to remember that it took a majority vote of both houses and the governor’s signature to pass the legislation that supported all the spending, as well as legislation that cut needed revenue streams through tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. There should be a mirror in front of every legislator’s and the governor’s desk to remind them that they may be as much to blame for the current budget problem as whoever they’re pointing their blaming finger at.
Conservation interests have endured a long string of tough budget years. Iowa remains, as it has for years, at or near the very bottom of all the states when it comes to what we spend on conservation. The people of Iowa voted overwhelmingly to create the Conservation and Recreation Trust Fund through a constitutional amendment ten years ago. It called for a 3/8 cent sales tax increase to fix that long-standing conservation budget problem once and for all. Thanks to ten years of finger-pointing, it still hasn’t happened. This year began with high hopes that the growing water quality issue might gain enough bipartisan traction to help get some long-overdue funding into the still-empty trust fund. Most conservationists feel that funding the trust is the best way to address a growing backlog of conservation issues, including water quality. There’s even bipartisan support for funding the Conservation and Recreation Trust Fund this year, but it’s beginning to look like there may not be enough support (again) to get it done.
Instead, our legislature is set to consider a proposal to defund and eliminate one of the most successful conservation research programs in the nation. Yes, some folks down on the hill and elsewhere in lobbying circles think that getting rid of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture would be a good way to save some money. Never mind that it was created with strong bipartisan support (in another era) and that it’s won national awards. Never mind that it’s recognized as an outstanding program all over the world. Never mind that research conducted by the Leopold Center has developed and educated people about how to use many of the very conservation practices that Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for (to improve water quality). Powerful (well-funded) interests are lobbying against programs like the Leopold Center that try to make the world a safer, healthier and more beautiful place. The Leopold Center’s work has, as it should, focused on improving how we use the land, but it has never ignored the need for profitability as it strives to find more effective conservation practices. Some powerful interests apparently feel that such programs are a waste and an obstacle to their profitability. Will our legislators reject such notions and vote to keep programs that strive for what’s best for the land and people, who deserve a decent quality of life as they live on it? Will they finally support conservation funding at a level that can begin to tackle long-standing needs? Although most of us don’t have big lobbying budgets, it still helps if you tell your legislators what you think is important. There’s little time left, and we’ll know very soon what our state government thinks is important.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.