The Iowa Farm Bureau is running radio ads and has sent out a press release to the media urging its members and all Iowa voters to vote "no" on two constitutional questions that will be on the ballot when people go to the polls in the November 2 general election.
The first question is a proposed amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would create a trust fund to provide sustainable funding for soil, water and other resource conservation programs. The funding would come by setting aside three-eighths of 1% of any new increase in the state's sales tax. The second question will ask voters whether Iowa should hold a Constitutional Convention to propose amendments to the state's Constitution.
"While either of these ballot issues may sound attractive at first, a deeper examination of the issues shows that either of them could be too risky or too expensive for our state," says Don Petersen, government relations director for the Iowa Farm Bureau. "That's why we are asking our members to become informed on the issues and to vote "no" on both of these questions."
Farm Bureau supports soil conservation, but is concerned about taxes
He points out that Farm Bureau has a long history of supporting programs and measures that protect Iowa's environment, working with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the state's soil and water conservation districts to promote and maintain conservation funding. He says that support has been a big factor in significantly reducing soil erosion, as well as the amount of fertilizer and other nutrients applied to produce corn and soybeans.
Delegates to the Farm Bureau annual meeting in 2009 adopted a policy on the proposed natural resource trust fund. The policy states: "While we support soil conservation and water quality, we do not support a constitutionally protected sales tax to pay for natural resource programs."
The organization's big concern is that passage of the proposed constitutional amendment could ultimately lead to higher taxes. Under the terms of the proposed amendment, the conservation funding would not begin until the state's sales tax is increased. "We are very concerned that passing this amendment would increase the pressure to raise the sales tax at a time when all Iowans are struggling with the economic downturn," says Petersen.
Are environmental initiatives a bigger priority than education?
Another reason Farm Bureau opposes the conservation amendment is that it would allocate money the state has not even authorized or collected. It would also lock in spending priorities, putting spending on parks and land acquisition ahead of other key Farm Bureau priorities such as education appropriations for the state's schools and spending on public safety.
The way the proposal is worded would obligate a future revenue stream be used for a specific purpose, maybe years or even decades before it is collected, and the lawmakers' hands would be tied, says Petersen. They couldn't re-direct that money if it would be needed more so in another more important or critical program in a future year. "Why should voters in 2010 decide the direction of a tax revenue stream that doesn't currently exist?"
Other than Farm Bureau, there has been little organized opposition to the plan, which has been a decade in the making. A few church groups have questioned how a sales tax increase might affect low-income families.
Iowa's Water & Land Legacy is a group that's pushing for the trust
Members of Iowa's Water & Land Legacy, the group that is pushing hard for the trust to be established, just finished a 60-stop statewide media tour. The group has launched an elaborate website and a grass-roots letter writing campaign and plans to start running TV advertising soon.
The group points out that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency says Iowa has more than 500 seriously polluted waterways. They also say Iowa on average loses 5 tons of soil per acre per year, due to erosion. Also, Iowa ranks nearly last among states in spending on natural resource conservation.
The money collected from the sales tax and put in the trust would pay for voluntary programs. None of it would be used to pay for regulatory work, says Sean McMahon, state director for the Nature Conservancy and one of the leaders of the Iowa's Water & Land Legacy campaign that is advocating passage of the ballot measure. Lawmakers would be able to use the money from the trust fund for anything but the uses detailed in a spending plan the Legislature approved last session.
Two-thirds of money would go toward soil & water conservation
Two-thirds of the money would go to farmers and other landowners willing to establish wetlands, grasslands and other soil and water conservation programs that would reduce runoff and serve as wildlife habitat. Lawmakers last year agreed that the new spending would be in addition to what's already appropriated for those projects. The fund would be subject to regular, public audits.
Some 130 organizations representing 300,000 hunters, fishermen, paddlers, farmers, boat owners and clean water advocates have waged a relatively quiet campaign focused on core backers but also reaching out to more Iowans to try to get the public to vote in favor of the amendments.
Hunters who favor establishment of the conservation trust fund point out that Iowa's pheasant population has had a huge drop the past five years. Matt O'Connor, who is Iowa conservation director for Pheasants Forever, says Iowa would be a far better place if it had more public lands and more wildlife habitat. Today, Iowa ranks nearly last in the U.S. in terms of percentage of public lands. "South Dakota is home to a much bigger population of pheasant and many hunters, both from Iowa and from other states, are now going there to spend their money and do their hunting instead of Iowa," he says.