All I Want for Christmas is $180 million

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As we head toward the start of the 2016 legislative session, (Monday, Jan. 11) our thoughts turn away from the whirlwind of shopping, wrapping, cooking and family gatherings consuming our attention toward what could be the most important gift we could give ourselves, the funding of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

This is a gift that would give year after year, protecting our water, preventing the loss of precious topsoil and providing habitat for our diverse wildlife. This gift would support quality of life initiatives like trails and parks, which contribute to making Iowa, its economy and its people, thrive.

This is a gift we owe ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, and we need to do it NOW.

How are we going to convince the Governor and the Legislature that they need to catch up with public opinion and get the Trust funded? After all, this has been on the public’s wish list since 2010, when an overwhelming majority of Iowa voters approved the constitutional amendment to create the trust fund and provide permanent, reliable funding for our natural resources. Five years later, the unfunded needs continue to grow, the price tag to stem our water quality concerns increases and our quality of life in Iowa is compromised.

Meanwhile, the Grinch blankets us with dubious visions of water quality improvements and support for a status quo that is frankly not sustainable in the long run. We all know this, but hearts are hardened and change, even for the better, isn’t easy.

The Coalition working to get the Trust funded is pulling an enormous sleigh up a gigantic mountain. It is not easy for legislators to raise the sales tax, especially during an election year — even if voters have already given their nod of approval.

Beyond that, the upcoming legislative session is sure to be dominated by education, health care issues and a budget constrained by lower than expected revenues coming into the state’s coffers. These are vital matters that also contribute significantly to Iowan’s quality of life. Historically, in times like this, our natural resources are the first to be pushed to the back burner. We cannot allow this to continue happening.

Funding the Trust would provide approximately $180 million annually to address our natural resource concerns. The allocation formula, as introduced to the public when they approved creation of the Trust, allows for over 70% of the dollars to be used for programs and initiatives that have a significant impact on water quality, while also providing for recreational amenities like trails and parks. Some are suggesting that the allocation formula needs to be changed to ensure that those dollars support the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. A formula change isn’t necessary — it already does that.

During the last legislative session, we made good progress by getting two bills introduced which address getting the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund funded. The first bill, SF 504, proposes a straight up sales tax increase, phased in over three years. This bill made it through the Senate Ways and Means Committee and is eligible for debate this next session. The second bill, HSB 256, was filed just prior to adjournment, so no action was taken on it. It is also eligible for debate this next session. This bill phases in the sales tax increase over three years, and pairs the increase with a decrease in income tax. The bill also proposes changes in the allocation formula

Even though neither bill is acceptable to the other party/chamber, it is extremely valuable to have both introduced and eligible for debate and, ultimately, compromise. We are further than we have been since the constitutional amendment was adopted.

Our challenge for the next legislative session, no matter WHO we are, or what VILLE we live in, will be to continue to talk with the Governor and our legislators about the urgent need to act NOW to get the Trust funded, to urge them to keep the formula as it was approved by the voters (including quality of life initiatives like trails and parks) and to help them understand that this will contribute to making Iowa, its economy and its people, flourish.

It will take a choir of all of us WHOs, persistently working together to fill the air, the internet, the mail and the Capitol with the promise of the solutions provided by the Trust, in order to melt those hardened hearts and get this sleigh over the precipice — finally giving Iowans the gift they want and deserve, a natural resource base that supports our people and our economy, now and into the future.

– Marian Gelb, INHF Director of Public Policy

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