Session Recap: ‘Historic’ — not label of pride

Some legislators may boast of a “historic” session. History will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other.

By

4/22/17

IFP Statement: ‘Historic’ session not a label of pride

Legislative session hits working families and traditions of good governance

Basic RGB

Statement of Iowa Fiscal Partnership • Mike Owen, Iowa Policy Project

To describe the 2017 Iowa legislative session as “historic” is not a label its leaders should wear with pride.

Iowans needed a legislative session that worked to raise family incomes and expand educational opportunity. Iowans had long demanded water-quality improvement measures. Many called for lawmakers to address the lack of fairness, adequacy and accountability in a tax system laden with special-interest breaks and costly subsidies to corporations.

Instead, Iowans got a continued ratcheting down of funding for PK-12 public education. There were significant and serious cuts in post-secondary education that will lead to tuition increases. We saw cuts to early-childhood education and other programs that serve our most at-risk children and neglect of the child-care assistance program that helps working families struggling to get by.

The Legislature continues to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. Their ultimate action on water merely diverts resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety.

Lawmakers largely left the tax issue to the next session. An overture in the House to reform Iowa’s reckless system of tax credits was a welcome acknowledgment that this issue needs attention, but devils in the details make further discussion of this issue during the interim even more welcome.

Perhaps as troubling as the destructive nature of policy content this session, Iowa’s image of adherence to good governance took a big hit. The most controversial policy changes came not through collaborative, public discussion in committee, let alone the 2016 political campaigns, but were often dumped into lawmakers’ laps with little opportunity for amendments.

In what could accurately be called a “session of suppression,” lawmakers achieved:

  • Wage suppression, with a bill to preempt local minimum wage increases while refusing to raise Iowa’s repressive, 9-year-old minimum of $7.25.
  • Workplace suppression, gutting collective bargaining protections for public employees, and making it more difficult for Iowans recover financially from injuries on the job.
  • Health-care suppression, achieved in workers’ compensation legislation while also refusing to reverse Governor Branstad’s disastrous move to privatize Medicaid.
  • Local suppression, whacking at local government control in a variety of areas: minimum wage, legal defenses against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), fireworks sales, and collective bargaining options.
  • Voter suppression, with a bill to make it more difficult for many citizens, particularly low-income and senior voters, to exercise their right to vote.
  • Suppression of children’s healthy development, with additional cuts to Early Childhood Iowa and Shared Visions that will reduce access to critical home visitation, child care and preschool services for some of our most at-risk youngsters.

Some legislators may boast of a “historic” session. History will mark 2017 as a low point in Iowans’ respect and care for each other, a legacy that will not be celebrated when future Iowans look back on this session and the closing act of Governor Branstad’s long tenure in office.

#     #     #     #     #

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership is a joint public policy analysis initiative of two nonpartisan, nonprofit, Iowa-based organizations — the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City, and the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines. Reports are available at www.iowafiscal.org, and on the websites of the two partner organizations, www.iowapolicyproject.org and www.cfpciowa.org.

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

Reading, ’Rithmetic & Politics

Of course it’s a diversion. May future debate focus on whether the Governor’s proposed diversion is a good idea, not the fact that he has proposed it.

First, Governor Branstad challenged the bounds of basic math — miscounting jobs — and now it’s language arts.

The Governor reportedly got a little testy last week at a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting. Among his complaints: references to a “diversion” of revenue from a state sales tax for school infrastructure to support water-quality improvements. From the Register:

Branstad, in particular, took issue with the idea that his proposal diverts money away from schools.

“I can’t see how you can possibly call it a diversion when schools are going to get at least $10 million more guaranteed every year, plus a 20-year extension,” he said. “They’re sharing a small portion of the growth.”

Well, here’s how you call it a diversion:

diversion
[dih-vur-zhuh n, -shuh n, dahy-]
noun
1. the act of diverting or turning aside, as from a course or purpose: a diversion of industry into the war effort.
dictionary.com

Under the Governor’s plan, there is a “diverting or turning aside” a share of sales-tax revenues from their currently authorized “course or purpose,” school infrastructure, from FY2017 beginning July 1 this year, to FY2029. This is illustrated by Governor’s own handout on the plan. See the one-page document his office provided the media on Jan. 5.  The graph at the bottom of that page (reproduced below), shows the diversion shaded in blue, beginning with the black vertical line and running to the red dotted line.

160105-water-school-graph
Of course it’s a diversion. In fact, the diversion continues if the tax — which would not exist before or after FY2029 without voters’ intent for its use in funding school infrastructure — is extended to FY2049.

May future debate focus on whether the Governor’s proposed diversion is a good idea, not the fact that he has proposed it.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

 

 

Tired of waiting, Des Moines Water Works speaks for all Iowans

Why should no one be surprised by Des Moines Water Works going to court? It is because the Governor and his administration have failed to act.

Last week, Des Moines Water Works’ Board of Trustees voted to issue a notice of intent to sue the Board of Supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties “in their role as governing authority for 10 drainage districts that are discharging pollutants into the Raccoon River,” which threaten Des Moines’ drinking water.

Why should no one be surprised by Des Moines Water Works going to court? It is because the Governor and his administration have failed to act.

The new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) was hailed as a promising effort to improve Iowa water quality by reducing nutrient pollution from the state by about half. Research behind the strategy showed that 90 percent of the nitrate pollution coming from Iowa came from nonpoint sources, mainly agriculture.

Despite this, state policy was to require cities and towns and industries to reduce their contribution to the nutrient pollution — but to let agriculture producers do whatever they wanted. For them reducing the pollution was voluntary.

An Iowa Policy Project report last July demonstrated the shortcomings of a voluntary approach and suggested a few ways to at least give the new strategy a chance. Had these suggestions been adopted maybe the Des Moines water utility would not have been forced to go to court. The following are what the report found as shortcomings of the NRS:

Insufficient funding — The year the NRS was adopted the Legislature responded with more than $20 million of new funding to support farmers who wanted to introduce new methods to reduce their pollution. In a bipartisan effort, legislators agreed to improve spending again in 2014. However, Governor Terry Branstad vetoed $11 million in similar funding and another $9 million in REAP natural resources and recreation funding — 20 percent of which would have gone to efforts to reduce soil loss that contributes to pollution of our rivers.

Insufficient monitoring — The state has supported more than a dozen efforts by local producers and ag businesses to work to improve soil and water protection practices in their own small section of a stream. This is a wonderful opportunity to do water testing to see if the new emphasis is doing any good. Yet, monitoring is not required for this expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

Pick two — The Iowa Soybean Association, the one commodity group that seems to take an interest in improving water quality, had supported six examples of methods to improve water quality, such as grassed waterways in fields and planting cover crops to follow corn and soybean crops. Our report suggested that each farmer voluntarily adopt any two of these measures. Not all measures would necessarily be best for each producer but two surely would work. We would let farmers decide which research-backed approaches to use.

Set benchmarks and a timeline — There is no timeline for the NRS to accomplish its goal of reducing nutrient pollution by nearly half. The Water Resources Coordinating Council, a voluntary citizen group that is to ride herd on the NRS, has never been allowed to vote on a timeline. Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture is not interested in setting dates.

Will it take 100 years to accomplish the task? We don’t know. And Des Moines Water Works, standing up for all of Iowa, is reminding us all that we cannot wait.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg, co-founder of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, is a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

Job 1 for Day 1 — putting Iowa families first

Issues that were big for our state before the election remain big issues.

As election dust settles, priorities remain clear for Iowa families

Now that the votes are counted, the real work begins. Job 1? It could be any of a number of areas where solid research and analysis have shown better public policy could make a difference for a more prosperous, healthier Iowa. Take a step back from the TV ads and “gotcha” politics and these issues come clearly in focus.

In Iowa, research shows solid approaches to economic prosperity for working families include:

In Iowa, research shows a fiscally responsible approach to both find revenues and do better with what we have includes:

  • Stopping tax giveaways to companies that pay no income tax — which occurs at a cost of between $32 million and $45 million a year through one research subsidy program alone, even though there is nothing to show this spending boosts the Iowa economy or produces activity that would not occur anyway. http://www.iowafiscal.org/big-money-big-companies-whose-benefit/
  • Reining in unnecessary “tax expenditures” — tax breaks, tax credits and other spending done through the tax code — could bring in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for public services. A five-year sunset on all tax credits would force lawmakers to review and formally pass renewals of this kind of spending, now on autopilot. The last attempt at real reform fell woefully short. http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-credit-reform-glass-half-full-maybe-some-moisture/
  • Plugging tax loopholes — a $60 to $100 million problem — would pay for a 2 or 3 percent annual increase in state per-pupil funding of K-12 schools. Twenty-three states, including 4 of 6 Iowa neighbors, don’t permit multistate corporations to shift profits out of state to avoid Iowa income tax and contribute their fair share to local education and other state services. https://iowapolicypoints.org/2013/05/22/will-outrage-translate-into-policy/
  • Reforming TIF — tax-increment financing, which is overused and often abused by cities around the state, has caught lawmakers’ attention in the past and should again. Like many tools that provide subsidies to private companies and developers, it should be redesigned to assure subsidies only go to projects with a public benefit and only where the project could not otherwise occur. Further, it should be designed to assure that only the taxpayers who benefit are the ones footing the bill, which is a problem with current TIF practice. http://www.iowafiscal.org/category/research/taxes/tax-increment-financing-tif/

In Iowa, research shows a healthy environment and smart energy choices for Iowa’s future includes:

  • Putting teeth into pollution law — which means reforms in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to eliminate pollution in waterways. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140717-nutrient.html
  • Allowing local government to regulate frac sand mining — When it comes to cigarettes, guns and large hog facilities the Iowa Legislature took away the right of local government to listen to citizen desires. The General Assembly and the Governor should let democracy thrive and not take away local control of sand mining.
  • Encouraging more use of solar electricity in Iowa — Jobs are created while we confront climate change if we build better solar policy in Iowa. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/110325-solar-release.html
  • Promoting local food and good food choices with school gardens — and a pilot project to offer stipends to Iowa school districts could encourage both learning and better nutrition. http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2014Research/140514-school_gardens.html

None of these issues are new and it’s not an exhaustive list. But these were big issues for our state before the election and remain so, no matter who is in charge.

Together, we can build on the solid research cited above and lay the foundation for better public policy to support those priorities.

Owen-2013-57   Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Stop politicizing water quality

If you are promoting a voluntary system to reduce nutrient runoff, shouldn’t you make sure farmers have resources to put sensible measures into practice?

Water quality in Iowa is so bad that any new initiative to improve our waters is probably a good thing. That said, Iowa farm groups’ new initiative to take action on agricultural pollution of our waters comes with a troubling rollout.

Making the announcement with Governor Branstad not only politicizes water quality, something that should be above politics, but masks the governor’s own decision this year to delay action.

The Governor’s veto of $11 million for water quality — funding passed by a divided legislature — makes an important statement about water quality. In addition, the governor also vetoed $9 million in funding for the REAP program, which is used by counties and cities to acquire and protect natural areas and to preserve Iowa’s environment.

Twenty percent of REAP goes to farmers to improve soil and water practices. If you are promoting a voluntary system to reduce nutrient runoff, shouldn’t you make sure farmers have resources to put sensible measures into practice?

The new group established to improve water quality needs to be taken seriously by the environmental community and by all Iowans. But this rollout does not engender trust.

The Iowa Policy Project recently released a report on water quality in Iowa. [See A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution] We showed that the addition of six new policies to the state’s new Nutrient Reduction Strategy would make it possible for the strategy to succeed.

One of those policies is the kind of effort the new farm group plans to push — bringing attention to the problem. A second policy is more funding, and farm group muscle could improve the chances in the Legislature. However, even if the Legislature acts, as in the 2014 session, legislation still has to get by a governor’s veto.

Maybe the best starting place to build broad support would be to invite an environmental group to the table, rather than a politician in the middle of a heated campaign. We know plenty who could help.

IPP-osterberg-75 Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

On the Climate March, other lessons

Whether it’s a dirty stream, or crops planted where a stream should be, we can see examples of what’s happening in Iowa when public policy creates low expectations.

140807-DO-walk-222640IPP co-founder David Osterberg this week is on the Great March for Climate Action.

On the March, which is currently proceeding through western Iowa, Osterberg is seeing good examples of another issue he’s passionate about: care for the land, and controlling water pollution. Or not, as in the photos in this post.

140807-walk-195651

Whether it’s a dirty stream, as at left, or crops planted where a stream should be, above, the picture is one of what happens when our public policy expectations are low. We can see examples around us, if we just look.

For more about issues of water pollution caused by ag runoff, and better approaches to reduce it, see several reports on our Iowa Policy Project website.

In particular, see our recent report on Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which relies heavily on voluntary measures instead of enforcement of public standards.

 

Addressing water pollution no matter the source

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

The Iowa Policy Project keeps producing good reports about the causes of water pollution and how to address it.

Our report last week, Managing Water Pollution With Urban Wetlands: How Cities Reduce Contamination from Farms and Urban Development, was released on October 30. This IPP report, authored by J. Elizabeth Maas & E. Arthur Bettis, received a great deal of media attention. It was front page above the fold in both the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. It was also covered by the Des Moines Register, Iowa Public Radio and WHO Radio, and the subject of a talk show on KVFD-AM in Fort Dodge.

While our report dealt with urban wetlands, many of the questions from the media folks who participated in our call-in news conference were about agricultural wetlands. That is no surprise since so much of the water pollution problems in Iowa come from the farm.

IPP pointed out that reality in a 2010 report that can be found on our website: Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm by Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer, released in September 2010. That report pointed out that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrate and Phosphorus fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, the fact that two-thirds of Iowa land is in corn or soybeans means that only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

Agriculture still dominates even if you include sewage treatment plants in the urban share of nutrient pollution (see graph below).

usgs

So the takeaway message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agriculture. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

David OsterbergBy David Osterberg, Founding Director

Drops in the bucket: an erosion of water quality funding

At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Lawmakers in Des Moines working on the state budget should remember that 63 percent of Iowans approved of a constitutional amendment creating a new fund for natural resources and water quality in the state.  And now there is new evidence that that funding is needed.

In our March 1st report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, we show that overall water quality funding in the state has dwindled over the past decade and it would take at least $5 million in next year’s budget just to get us back to an average funding level for the past decade.  This begs the question of whether those average levels were adequate or not.

The 10 water quality programs we looked at most saw significant declines of around 30 percent when adjusted for inflation.  These programs provide a good snapshot of overall water quality funding in the state.

Table 3 from IPP report
When adjusted for inflation most of these programs saw significant decreases; the average inflation-adjusted decrease for these seven budget items is over 30 percent.

Numbers can sometimes be deceiving and in some cases look better than they really are.  The water monitoring program of the DNR, for instance, has maintained nominal funding of about $2.9 million for nine straight years. Because of shifting money within the department, however, the monitoring program is not able to monitor things like groundwater quality, or test for pesticides and pharmaceuticals like it used to.

Money is not the only factor in improving Iowa water quality, but it is a necessary part of any effort.  Iowa’s water quality can be improved.  For evidence, just look at trout streams in northeast Iowa, which have made dramatic improvements since the mid-1980s, with six or seven times more streams having naturally reproducing trout now.

Improvements like that won’t  happen without funding and the state’s current investment in water quality is not going to be adequate to make a significant improvement across the state. If these trends continue where will be in another 10 years?  At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

———

Read new IPP report by Will Hoyer, Brian McDonough and David Osterberg

See Radio Iowa and Cedar Rapids Gazette stories about the report

More drainage and water quality benefits, too? Maybe

Can more drainage paired with wetlands improve water quality and farmers’ profits? Let the research proceed, and until then, let’s withhold judgment.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

We’ve all heard about the area of hypoxia, or the so-called “Dead Zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of all the rain and flooding this year and the amount of water flowing down the Mississippi, scientists are expecting the Dead Zone to be the largest ever recorded.

It’s starting to appear that these rain events are becoming the “new normal” just as climate modelers have predicted. Therefore it is becoming even more imperative that we take steps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are leaving Iowa fields and keep them from flowing downstream. The Wetland and Drainage Initiative that we write about in our latest report is an attempt by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to study one potential way for doing just that.

At the heart of it the concept behind the Initiative, which some know as “the Iowa Plan,” is the idea that enlarging the subsurface drainage(or “tile”) capacity will allow fields to dry faster thus increasing crop yields. The additional profits from the higher yields could then pay for the construction of nitrate removal wetlands that would be built at the outlets of the tiles. The larger tile capacity would mean more nitrate leaving the fields but the nitrates would be removed by the wetlands. That’s the theory — but it needs to be tested. That’s what IDALS is doing, in partnership with other agencies and groups, at several sites in north central Iowa.

map showing Des Moines Lobe
The Des Moines Lobe is the focus of the IDALS initiative.

We really don’t know for sure if this Initiative will work as touted and there are lots of questions, questions that hopefully will be answered with rigorous, transparent monitoring of the pilot sites. Rightly or wrongly there is a lot of skepticism among some groups regarding anything IDALS does and so the onus is on IDALS to demonstrate that these pilot projects, were they to be expanded across the tile-drained parts of the state, would actually have water quality and crop yield benefits and would not have unintended negative consequences.

A lot of research underlies the Initiative, and with thorough monitoring of the pilot sites scientists will probably know a lot more in five years. It’s possible that these treatment wetlands will be playing a much bigger role in the next few decades in Iowa, Illinois and other tile drained parts of the country, but in five years the data may also show that the concept just does not work. We’ll see.

  • We should avoid a situation where farmers are putting in larger tiles with no way of removing the extra nitrogen and therefore contributing even more to downstream water problems.
  • We should avoid subsidizing farmers’ installations of larger tiles.
  • We should avoid draining the few remaining wetlands we have left.
  • We should avoid putting scarce public dollars into programs that may not have benefits.
  • We also should avoid putting all of our eggs in one basket. It’s going to take more than just these nitrate removal wetlands to get Iowa water quality to where it needs to be and there are lots of other steps that can be taken and existing programs that could use more resources in the meantime.

In short, this is a message to catch our breath and let the research tell us what’s happening. This Initiative combining enhanced drainage and nitrate-removal wetlands shows promise to benefit both farmers and water quality but until we see the numbers in a few years we will withhold judgment.

By Will Hoyer, Research Associate