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Let’s Not Get Too Greedy

By Staff | Jan 8, 2016

Unless you’ve lived in a vacuum the past year, nearly every resident of Northwest Iowa is aware of the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works Board against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun Counties over nitrate levels of waters found in the Raccoon River. The suit was filed by the Water Works board to recoup some of the expenses they incur in reducing the Nitrate levels of the Raccoon River’s waters, which are one of the two primary sources for the drinking water supply in Des Moines.

For most of last year, the ongoing discussion over this lawsuit revolved around a couple of things – who was in fact responsible for the nitrates and secondly, how to reduce those levels.

All kings of ideas were touted – limiting the nitrogen fertilizers that farmers could apply to their lands to grow crops; requirements for more grass waterways, buffer strips adjacent to drainage ditches and creeks. Some ideas have merit, others, well, not so much. But the proverbial elephant in the room in all the discussions was cost – how to pay for any solution.

It’s a legitimate concern, given recent agricultural commodity prices and the costs of production.

This week, Governor Terry Branstad offered a proposition that involves the statewide one-cent sales tax that was first implemented in 2008 as a way to aid school districts in repairing and updating buildings. The Governor wants to extend that statewide penny tax another 20 years and then divert a portion of that money to be directed toward water quality projects.

At first glance, many might think it is a good idea. But when you stop, take a sip of coffee and think for a second, a big warning sign unfurls in front of you.

What becomes more important – the quality of water in Des Moines or the education of our most valuable resource – our youth.

That, my friends, is a true dilemma.

The Governor says his plan will actually help fund two top priorities – education and water quality. To that end, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Governor, traveled to Iowa to offer his support to the idea, agreeing that Iowa’s water quality needs immediate attention.

The plan would extend the statewide penny sales tax, which is scheduled to expire in 2029, for another 20 years, through 2049. The move would provide an estimated $20.7 billion for schools and more than $4.6 billion for water quality.

All this comes as our state’s Legislative leaders gather to plan out the upcoming Legislative session for the year, that begins next week. Water quality funding will surely be a top topic for the session, but then again, so will education funding, since the Legislature has a dismal track record in recent years of abiding by the Code of Iowa in setting a School Aid Formula.

This past year, school funding was left up in the air until the final days of the Legislative session, causing school districts statewide to develop budgets using the proverbial “throw a dart and see where it lands” method. For some districts, massive layoffs of personnel took place because school funding for the coming year was uncertain.

Iowa has always been considered a progressive state in terms of education and literacy, but in recent years, funding woes have eaten into the picture, and add in unnecessary federal requirements of “No Child Left Behind” that were recently changed, and school districts have struggled with little or no increases in their state funding.

While clean water is also crucial to our state and all of its residents, how do you choose to pair water quality with education?

Is there another way to find funding for water quality efforts? The Federal government has a program available for residents of the Mississippi River watershed that can be used towards water quality efforts. Is there a similar program for other rivers such as the Missouri?

Iowa has long been working to reduce nitrate loading in the Mississippi River and the Hypoxia Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. If there is funding available for this effort, why can’t it be applied to a more local concern in Northwest Iowa – instead of our state leaders wanting to take money from our schools. Robbing Peter to pay Paul seems to be just a bit too greedy, doesn’t it?