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SL Mayor in the forefront of effort to bring environment funding issue to the voters

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Iowa 'Green' Amendment issue blooms for nature

If the state has a tendancy to "rob Peter to pay Paul" as various needs compete for a slice of the limited financing pie, too often, it is the environment that is the victim of the stick-up, says Jon Kruse.

Kruse, Storm Lake mayor and national activist with Ducks Unlimited, is one of the nature lovers hoping to see the state take action this session to help provide a new, protected stream of funding for outdoors programs.

Kruse is a member of the Sustainable Funding Advisory Committee for the state, which is working to support an amendment to Iowa's Constitution calling for a fraction of a penny from the next state sales tax increase to be reserved for the environment.

The new money would go to a variety of efforts, from trails and lake preservation to maintaining state parks and habitat areas, to helping farmers reduce soil erosion.

The necessity for such a state commitment is obvious in communities like Storm Lake which are built around natural resources, Kruse suggests.

"In Storm Lake, Clear Lake, the Iowa Great Lakes, and really in places like this around the state, we have a great luxury in that we have a natural resource that attracts people and adds to our quality of life. But at the same time, they can be burdens if they are not maintained properly. We are trying to heal the environment and overturn the wrongs that have been inflicted on it over the years. There is a cost to do that, but there is a great benefit for all Iowans in it, too."

In arguing for the amendment vote, Kruse has appeared before a key legislative committee to detail what the dredging of Storm Lake and the resulting AWAYSIS lakefront development has done to dramatically change the community's outlook for the future. The same economist who performed the study for Storm Lake that helped create AWAYSIS has done an analysis on the potential of the amendment, showing that each dollar Iowa spends on its environment could return several in revenue. Lawmakers are now using the Storm Lake model as an example of what is possible, Kruse says.

The Amendment

Amending the state Constitution is no simple matter. To take such action, the same proposal must be passed twice by successive sessions of the Iowa Legislature. Lawmakers approved the measure lfor the first time at the tail end of the session last year, and took it up for the second time immediately after convining the 2009 session.

It has already passed out of the Iowa Senate Natural Resources committee, unanimously, setting it up for floor debate. A similar committte in the Iowa House was scheduled to consider the proposal early this week, but was delayed.

Unlike a normal bill, the resolution if approved by both houses would not go to the governor for a signature. Instead, the constitutional amendment question would be left to the public to decide, on an upcoming general election ballot.

The earliest that could happen would be the November 2010 vote.

So far, the issue has flown beneath the radar of the general public, but if the legislature passes the resolutions for the final time this session, that will change.

A big campaign to educate the public and encourage them to vote on the amendment is already taking shape, Kruse said. "If we win approval, we basically have a year and a half to talk to the public about the future of the environment in Iowa, and then the people decide.

"I think that is why so many of the legislators came to support this idea so rapidly. They are not having to vote to spend the money or increase taxes. All they are voting for is to give the people a chance to have their say on it."

Local Senator Steve Kettering, who sits on the Senate Nature Resources committee, and local state representatives Gary Worthan of Storm Lake and Dan Huseman of Aurelia, who also hold key decision-making committee positions, have been helpful in the cause, according to Kruse.

The Impact

Based on analysis of the current unfunded environmental needs in Iowa, the proponents of the amendment are hoping for 3/8 of a cent from the next sales tax increase to be set aside for the environment.

Kruse figures that would produce about $150 million a year - enough to going a long way toward meeting the needs. The money would go into a trust fund, and could not be withdrawn for non-environmental use.

The money would not start to be collected until sales tax is raised, so it would not compromise any other existing state programs. "The state tends to look at sales tax every 10-15 years, and we are about there now," Kruse says.

From the new money, a projected $10 million would go to lake restoration work, and $20 million to solving water qualifty issues in watersheds of Iowa water bodies.

About $20 million would go to restoring the funding for the existing REAP (Resources Enhancement and Protection) program and its efforts for projects that enhance natural, cultural, and recreational resources across the state.

Biking, walking, hiking and paddling trails would get $15 million.

A $35 million chunk would go to the DNR to meet already-identified needs in state parks and wildlife areas, including river and stream habitat areas.

Agriculture would see a $30 million windfall to improve conservation farming and erosion control and initiate a CRP-type program to keep volatile land in hay and grass while encouraging crop residue wildlife habitat to be offered in fields farmed heavily to meet ethanol crop demand.

The only new program created would be a Local Conservation Partnership, offering a pool of $20 million a year to cities, county conservation boards and nongovernment organizations for habitat protection, conservation education and other local projects.

The Debate

There is considerable support for the concept across the state, with the Iowa Soybean Association last week joining the list of agencies signing on to back the amendment. "This issue has adversaries, also," Kruse says.

Among them is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is skeptical that people would be willing to increase their own taxation, even to protect nature, and doesn't think the Constitution should be amended for such a purpose.

"If you amend the Constitution to protect parks or trails, why not do it for children's health care?" he argues.

People often say that sales tax is regressive, Kruse admits, but he feels it is the most fair way to provide the needed, steady funding stream for Iowa's environment without further burdening the property taxpayer.

"We do not have a good ongoing fund source. It's a matter of trying to beg, borrow or steal to get an environmental program funded every year. The lawmakers themselves have told us they are looking for a way to dedicate funding. Right now they tend to rob Peter to pay Paul."

Missouri and Minnesota have passed similar measures which have made a difference and proven popular, Kruse said. "It took them 10 years to get it done in Minnesota. We could do this in three or four.

"Iowa is at the bottom in terms of what we spend on our environment as a state. We ware not looking to create all kinds of money to do fun stuff with, we are trying to find the money to pay for what we already know we need, so that we can continue to have adequate natural resources for Iowans to utilize," he adds.

How would Buena Vista County benefit?

If the amendment were approved by voters in 2010, money could begin coming available in 2012-13. That would be soon enough to contribute to Storm Lake's massive dredging campaign, Kruse says. The dredging is expected to go on for perhaps another decade, and is likely to continue as long as funding and spoil area is available.

Both Storm Lake and county officials have discussed goals to create expansive biking trails, another area that could be funded under such a program. The community also has an existing watershed program, and is in the process of opening the first ever State Marina this coming season, with additional developments such as tourist cabins on hold for future funding at the site.

"We are beginning to learn to see environmental preservation as economic development," Kruse says. "Every fisherman, every birdwatcher, every hunter or trail-walker or whatever have one thing in common - they all spend money."

Even schools might be able to tap into some funding for creative environmental programs.

Nature and Politics

For Storm Lake's mayor, nature advocacy has become a way of life. From appreciating the parks in Storm Lake to helping to develop the national policy for the farflung Ducks Unlimited habitat efforts, Kruse has found some of his most enjoyable moments spreading the word about the Iowa amendment effort.

"I've really enjoyed this opportunity ever since I joined the committee in its second year," he says. "This has brought together a whole variety of different interests for the common good of the state. We don't always agree on everything, but we always have invigorating conversations when we get together."

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