Concerns linger as water quality bill advances
Critics say a half-billion-dollar water quality proposal fast-tracked by House Republicans still has problems that need to be addressed before the legislation moves forward.
But even many Democrats say that although it isn’t perfect, their goal is to see the bill advanced out of the House.
“We have to be able to have quality water for our families to drink. We have to feel safe about that. This bill moves us a step towards that," said Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids. "It’s not as big a step as (I’d like). But that looks like what we can move through.”
Among critics' concerns are fears that the money could be scooped by future lawmakers; that some funding recipients aren't required to show whether they're achieving results; and that K-12 education will see funding reductions as a result of the plan.
The bill could be debated on the House floor as soon as Monday, when legislators say they plan to offer amendments aimed at some of those issues.
The House Republicans' plan, offered as an alternative to one floated by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad this year, would take $232 million out of the state's Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, which is used to pay for improvements and upgrades to state facilities. An additional $245.9 million would come from a tax Iowans already pay on metered water through their water bills. That 6 percent sales tax currently flows into the state’s general fund and into a fund for school infrastructure needs.
The two pieces combine for $477.9 million in funding for water quality by 2029.
The focus on improving Iowa’s water quality sharpened in 2015 when Des Moines Water Works filed a federal lawsuit against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties. The lawsuit contends that the districts’ tile lines exacerbate pollution in drinking water by moving nutrients more quickly from farm fields to waterways.
State officials have said water supplies of about 260 Iowa cities and towns are highly susceptible to being contaminated by nitrates and other pollutants.
The state Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, aims to reduce rural and urban nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent and could cost up to $1.2 billion annually over five decades, according to some estimates.
Questions about accountability
Running-Marquardt, who sat on one of the initial subcommittees passing the bill, said one of her biggest concerns is that the legislation doesn’t do enough to ensure that the money is achieving the results the state is looking for. State departments appropriating money to agriculture programs have to report where the money is going, but not whether those programs are producing results.
It’s an issue a number of Republicans also see as a problem.
“I think that’s really important to everybody,” said Rep. Norlin Mommsen, a Republican and farmer from DeWitt. “I mean, I’m not in favor of just throwing money at it and saying, 'Well, we gave it a shot.' I want to look at it at the end of the day and say, 'Yeah, we did good.'”
But legislators are wary of anything that might convey to farmers that the state is singling them out.
“We’re not trying to get to individual farmers and pinpoint to say, 'You’re the bad guy' or 'You’re the problem,'” Running-Marquardt said. “When we’re talking about accountability, it’s more accountability to the departments to say that we are giving you this money and you are moving forward with nitrogen and phosphate reduction.”
Lawmakers also are concerned about the logistics of such reporting.
Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, is vice president of the Okoboji Preservation Association, which focuses on the ecological health of the Iowa Great Lakes watershed. He also is the Clean Water Alliance coordinator for the Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District and conducted his masters degree research on water quality improvements.
“Should there be some accountability? Yes,” Wills said. “The problem with water is, it doesn’t just magically fix itself and then tomorrow we know the results and it’s all good. In some of these watersheds, it can take 20 or 40 years to fix.”
He said he has been working with the Iowa Great Lakes watershed since 1993, and only now are results beginning to be seen in water sampling data there.
Watersheds are an area of land where all the streams and rainfall drain into a common outlet. The Iowa Great Lakes Watershed is about 97,000 acres. For larger watersheds that cover three or four counties, you would need "a lifetime” until you'd see significant reductions in those pollutants, Wills said. But if you look at smaller watersheds of about 50,000 acres, you could yield measurable results in about 15 years, he said.
“That’s what I think is probably the most ideal size for us to be concentrating on,” he said. “It doesn’t identify individual landowners as being the problem. Yet the landowners know who the problems are and they can apply peer pressure.”
Water-sampling results also are highly susceptible to changes in weather and other variables, he said. Annual reporting almost “sets us up for failure,” he said, but a 10- or 15-year reporting period could be valuable.
Wills and Running-Marquardt said they’re working on amendments they hope to introduce to the bill that would create a useful reporting mechanism.
Can the money be scooped?
Some Democrats say they’re uncomfortable with the bill because it is not a guarantee of future funding.
Right now, the House has agreed to fulfill the first year of the proposal, which amounts to about $9 million. The future funding outlined in the bill is dependent on lawmakers continuing to appropriate that money year after year.
“These (dollars), over a period of 13 coming budget years when the Legislature may shift from one political party to another, could be scooped, could be cut, could be diverted into other programs, depending on what the hot topic or the issue is for that year,” Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said during a committee meeting on the bill last week.
Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, agreed.
“There’s always a concern of future legislators trying to either re-appropriate or redirect the dollars going to somewhere else,” he said. “We saw that this year in the SAVE dollars. We see it all the time.”
Branstad’s original water quality proposal would have used money set aside by the Legislature in 2008 for the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, fund. That money — about $440 million in the last fiscal year — goes toward school infrastructure projects.
That money has a higher level of protection, requiring a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber plus the governor’s signature before it could be redirected.
The money outlined in the House Republicans' water quality bill would require that the Legislature achieve a simple majority of each chamber and the governor's approval. Sands said there has been some discussion about whether to require that two-thirds vote standard in the House bill.
Even so, Sands said he feels that the money is reasonably well-protected as is. Future lawmakers would face public scrutiny for trying to take money away from a cause so many Iowans support, Sands said.
“But unless the money goes into an account that is constitutionally protected, then there is no guarantee,” he admitted.
That’s what many environmental advocates and Democrats have said is necessary. They point to the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which was approved by Iowa voters in 2010.
But so far, the Legislature has not passed the three-eighths-of-a-percent sales tax that would fund that trust. House Republicans have indicated throughout the current session that they do not intend to increase taxes to pay for water quality.
The Legislative Services Agency estimates that the tax would raise about $180.6 million in its first year and increase every subsequent year, totaling nearly $2.8 billion by 2029 and more than $10 billion by 2049.
Will education see cuts?
The plan to draw money from taxing metered water also has some Democrats concerned, including Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. Doing so would indirectly reduce funding to K-12 schools.
The existing 6 percent sales tax on metered water generates about $25.9 million annually. One-sixth of the revenue goes to the SAVE school infrastructure fund and the rest flows into the state general fund. The House proposal would redirect that revenue to a water quality fund.
When it’s fully implemented, it would result in annual decreases of about $4.3 million to the SAVE fund and $21.6 million to the general fund, the Legislative Services Agency estimates.
Gronstal said he hopes to lay out a proposal this week that “reduces the amount that this will require cutting from education and other state priorities and does something significant on water quality.”
About the proposal
House File 2451 includes two major pieces — one that addresses water quality from an urban perspective and another that looks at issues affecting rural areas and farmers. The two-pronged approach would direct an estimated $477.9 million to water quality cleanup efforts over the next 13 years.
The first piece would convert an existing 6 percent sales tax that Iowans pay on metered water though their water bills to an excise tax. That money, which currently flows into the state general fund and a school infrastructure fund, would be directed to the Iowa Finance Authority.
The finance authority would funnel 15 percent of the revenue to a water quality urban infrastructure program, 45 percent to a water quality financing revolving loan program, and 40 percent to a wastewater and drinking water financial assistance program.
The plan would be phased in over six years and, when fully implemented, is expected to generate about $25.9 million annually. Between the next fiscal year and 2029, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency projects that $245.9 million will go to that fund.
The second piece would take $232 million out of the state’s Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund over 13 years. That would be phased in over six years until the amount reaches $22 million annually.
The infrastructure fund collects about $190 million annually, primarily from state gambling revenue, and is used to fund projects such as renovations to state buildings and parks.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship would direct the revenue toward in-field and edge-of-field infrastructure programs.