Will Storm Lake project bring a share of the big bucks to rural area?
Storm Lake may be changing Mary Lou Freeman's mind on the Vision Iowa program.
The veteran state legislator from Alta has opposed Vision Iowa throughout its history, but as she sees the plan for a large State Park emerging in Storm Lake, she said she will keep an open mind in the hopes the state can play a role in that project.
"I did not support Vision Iowa the first time through, because I'm not into borrowing money," she said. "But if a compelling argument is made, and it appears that some of this money might actually come out to rural Iowa for once, I might just change my mind."
Local proponents of the State Park are pinning their hopes at least partially on the Vision Iowa fund. Chamber of Commerce executive Gary Lalone said that he is confident the program will have funds when Storm Lake has its application ready.
With Jeff Lamberti as the new Senate leader, chances appear better for an extension of the nearly bankrupt Vision Iowa program to continue providing large sums in matching funds for major tourism-related developments. Lamberti also has ties to Storm Lake, with the recently-constructed recreation center at Buena Vista University bearing his family's name.
"Lamberti thinks Vision Iowa is do-able, and he's the one who got it done the first time," Freeman said.
While the issue is active in the Senate, Freeman said it has received no attention in the House as of yet. In her role with the natural resources committee, she said she would personally find it easier to support if Vision Iowa was opened up to allow consideration of funding for water-quality related programs such as the Storm Lake watershed improvements.
So far this session, Freeman said she sees no partisan problems among the legislators, but the friction between the legislature and its governor is becoming deeper and more pronounced all the time, she feels.
"You could just feel a real wall go up between the governor and the legislators. His State of the State message was filled with ironies - that 'no new taxes' pledge of his past years has all the sudden evaporated."
Most lawmakers feel that the state is fortunate enough to be in the economic condition that it is, and fear that heavy additional spending will put the state's future in danger. Freeman also said that there is some distrust of Governor Vilsack and his promises to expand cigarette taxes to raise funds for health programs. "He just took funds away from health programs to pay for increases in state employee salaries, and if he raises the cigarette tax, I believe he will do it again."
Freeman is currently working in a subcommittee on a production tax credit for wind energy developments, a smaller-scale version of the debate now going on in Congress over a federal wind tax credit.
"The fiscal note would cost the state $161 million - the chair of the subcommittee says that there's no way the state can take that hit right now," Freeman said.
She feels that the wind developments hold crucial promise for rural northwest Iowa, and said she has been in touch with many agencies, trying to find an opportunity for a solution. "There's no doubt this will be a real boon to many communities and the tax base if we can create an environment that favors more windfarms," she said.
If the federal tax incentive is approved, Freeman said she feels the huge proposed MidAmerican Energy wind project in the Sac and southwest Buena Vista County area will almost immediately go ahead, with or without the state tax credit.
Other projects may hinge on the state incentive, however.
"If these go through, you bet we will see more turbines. I've been told that there is now a company in Iowa planning to start manufacturing turbines," Freeman said. As the technology becomes readily available, more people may choose to put up one tower to power their own needs, and more small privately-owned windfarms of six-eight turbines will spring up.
Freeman said she will soon be meeting with REC representatives to try to get them on board, although the rural cooperatives stand to lose some customers as people put up their own generators.
"I am amazed at the number of people who have been contacting me, wanting to put up a wind turbine themselves or develop a small windfarm. There is interest around Storm Lake. Anyone with a good confinement operation or even a grain drying system will probably feel that this is an investment worth looking at."
At the end of last year, a company called Iowa Wind came to state leaders, indicating that they want to diversify and construct multiple future windfarms at locations in the state yet to be determined. That was the real motivation for starting discussion of a state wind energy tax credit, Freeman said.
"It is a big item for the state, and we are looking at more and more people who would operate windfarms. of course, biomass is a a real opportunity in southern Iowa, and one group is looking at storing hydrogen underground that could propel fuel cells. Do we look at only wind energy, or do we try to look ahead to other alternatives as well?"
Gambling is a vocal issue in the statehouse this season, and Freeman feels that the legislature needs to provide some direction to the state's gaming commission. Among the issues, she says that lawmakers should define what constitutes a lake where a casino boat could be placed, they should consider whether a boat should be required to be able to sail, and should examine the state's responsibility for treating problem gamblers.
"We have not been funding what we were supposed to for treatment," she said.
With the 1-800-BETS-OFF advertising killed, the number of people seeking treatment for gambling addiction in the state has fallen off sharply, Freeman said.
"Personally, I have never supported gambling, but on the other hand, we have to look at what it's done for other areas of the state. Up here in northwest Iowa, we don't get any of the direct benefits from that. Sure, we get some gambling money for dredging, but it's rare that the grants funded from the gambling revenue get out this far."
Freeman is also working on a potential bill to increase boat registration fees, in order to earmark some new funds for water quality. Registration fees now go mainly for enforcement efforts.
She said she hopes to see Storm Lake dredging get an additional share of whatever money the state is able to allocate for water quality this year. "I don't look for a cut in Environment First this year. We were lucky to get back into it the $35 million for last year, and we will hopefully maintain that level or add to it."