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Voters Pass Land and Legacy Amendment In Iowa

Voters Pass Land and Legacy Amendment In Iowa

Establishment of special fund to provide more money for soil and water conservation and natural resource protection drew strong support from voters in November 2 election. But Iowa Legislature still must decide where the money will come from.

Iowa voters overwhelmingly passed the Iowa Land and Legacy Amendment in the November 2, 2010 general election. Nearly two-thirds of the voters approved an amendment to the state constitution to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. But for it to be implemented it will have to be funded by the Iowa Legislature.

The newly created fund would boost efforts to protect Iowa's natural resources and improve Iowa's state parks, and it would boost soil and water conservation programs statewide. It would make more soil conservation cost-share money available for Iowa farmers and landowners.

The Iowa Water and Land Legacy Amendment won with 63% of the vote. This measure creates a constitutionally-protected trust fund to ensure Iowa's natural resources are protected for future generations if the state sales tax is increased at some point in the future. The overwhelming victory for this ballot measure sends a strong message of public support for clean water and land protection in Iowa, which supporters believe will weigh favorably with Governor-elect Terry Branstad and state legislators.
Iowa Legislature to decide when and how it will fund the effort

"While the Iowa Land and Legacy amendment has been approved by voters to allow the establishment of the new trust fund, it will not get started right away—it will need funding," says Marian Gelb of the Iowa Environmental Council. She says voters knew this ahead of the election and were aware that the effort may not be funded right away. So when will it be funded? "That's up to the Iowa Legislature to decide, if and when economic conditions are right to raise the sales tax in Iowa," says Gelb. "The legislature will have to decide when and how it wants to raise the money to put into the fund."

The trust fund account could receive $150 million a year from a future sales tax increase, if lawmakers approve one. However, leaders from the Iowa Legislature have been cool to the idea of a sales tax increase. The trust fund wouldn't necessarily have to be funded by a state sales tax increase. Lawmakers might decide to have it funded by donations or other means, notes Gelb.

The fund would be regularly audited and would be used only for specified outdoor recreation and conservation work, and can't be raided to spend on anything else. A majority vote was required for approval of the amendment. The amendment to allow creation of the special fund was passed by a 63% to 37% margin in ballots cast by Iowa voters.

If lawmakers raise sales tax, some of it would go to this fund

Sean McMahon of Iowa's Water & Land Legacy, a coalition pushing for the protected account, says the victory is a huge boost for habitat, waterways and outdoor recreation in Iowa. He says it will lead to cleaner water, less severe floods and improved wildlife habitat. McMahon also points out that it will be up to Iowa lawmakers to decide whether to raise the sales tax. Missouri and Minnesota already have similar dedicated sales taxes, and Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Oklahoma are considering the approach.

Opponents of the special fund say the debate over how to fund the account will remain the same. "Conservation is one of our priorities and it will continue to be," says Rick Robinson, who is director of environmental policy for the Iowa Farm Bureau, which opposes a sales-tax increase for conservation projects. "Budget reform is also one of our priorities, and it will continue to be. The theme of this November 2 election was budget reform and the economy. We will be advocating for more funding for soil and water conservation, as we have in the past."

Three-tenths of 1% would be deposited into the special fund

Legislation already passed by Iowa lawmakers calls for the equivalent of three-eights of one percent to be deposited into this special account the next time the Iowa Legislature agrees to increase the sales tax. Democrat leaders in the Legislature earlier this year said an increase is unlikely in the next five years, but the November 2 election results could mean a new mix of views at the State Capitol on the possibility of a sales tax increase.

Backers of the fund, such as the Conservation Districts of Iowa organization and other natural resource protection groups, say the special fund is needed to improve water quality, save soil and help restore grasslands. Hunters say it is needed to return Iowa's shrinking pheasant population to levels that made it attractive for pheasant hunters to come to Iowa years ago.

It's took a decade to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot so that the special trust fund could be voted on. But the effort gained some momentum the last several years. There was little organized opposition for most of that 10 years, but the Iowa Farm Bureau launched a campaign this fall prior to the election and came out strongly against the amendment. That angered some of Farm Bureau's own members, who vowed to vote "yes" anyway. Farm Bureau questioned whether conservation projects rather than education or other areas that need state funding, deserved more spending.

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