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The House Agriculture Committee voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would establish a new framework for funding water quality projects across the state that supporters say will be more collaborative.

"We do spend a lot of time in a lot of areas, but especially in water quality, pointing the finger about who’s to blame, whose problem it is, who’s going to pay for it and all of that," said Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone and the bill manager. "And I think it’s time that we start to change that discussion."

Baltimore called House Study Bill 135 "extraordinarily" flexible and focused on collaboration. It builds off of legislation that advanced out of the Iowa House last year. Like last year's bill, it would fund projects by shifting money currently spent on infrastructure projects and using sales tax dollars Iowans already pay on their water bills.

New this year is the concept of a revolving loan fund that would provide loans and grants to organizations formed through "28E agreements."

Those agreements let public and private groups join together to address a common purpose — in this case, addressing water quality on a regional watershed basis. The bill adds incentives to get farmers, landowners, business owners and other private groups to join together to seek out solutions.

Baltimore said the state's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is the "guidepost" for the legislation. That strategy was adopted in 2013 and aims to reduce rural and urban nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent, and officials estimate it could cost $750 million to $1.2 billion annually over several decades to meet those goals.

The public's 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 controversial lawsuit contends that the districts’ tile lines exacerbate pollution in drinking water by moving nutrients more quickly from farm fields to waterways, which cities like Des Moines must pay to remove.

In January 2016, Gov. Terry Branstad prompted legislative action by announcing a plan he called the "biggest and boldest" of his career to fund water quality. That plan ultimately failed to gain legislative buy-in, but lawmakers now say they agree that finding funding for water quality improvement projects is a top priority.

Branstad's office proposed Senate Study Bill 1034, which is currently being considered in the Senate. That bill is virtually identical to the bill passed out of the House last session, and it has cleared a subcommittee in the Senate.

"Both last year and now, Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds have expressed a willingness to work with anyone who takes a pragmatic approach to the principles laid out for addressing water quality infrastructure in Iowa," Ben Hammes, the governor's spokesman, said in a statement. "Those principles, long-term, dedicated, reliable and growing funding, guide these discussions, and the governor and lieutenant governor are encouraged that Chairman Hein and Rep. Baltimore are working on an issue so critically important to Iowa."

But neither plan would increase the state's sales tax. In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Trust Fund to aid water quality, trails and other projects while calling for a dedicated funding source.

But funding the trust requires legislative action, and lawmakers so far have not indicated a willingness to do so.

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said he voted against the House bill because he thinks that sales tax is the best way to move forward.

“(That plan) is clearly superior in terms of addressing the water quality need," he said, saying it would generate more revenue and the funding could not be scooped by future legislatures and diverted to other programs.

According to a recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, 56 percent of Iowans support increasing the state sales tax three-eighths of 1 cent to pay for water quality projects and outdoor recreation.

The House bill still must advance through the Appropriations Committee before reaching the floor for debate.

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