Posted: January 27, 2020
The 2020 Iowa legislative session began January 13 and Governor Kim Reynolds delivered her Condition of the State Address on January 14. In that speech, Governor Reynolds announced that she would be introducing the Invest in Iowa Act. Among many other things, this bill would fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust (aka: the Trust).
This is going to be a big, swirling topic of conversation throughout the session, among lawmakers, lobbyists, and citizens alike. Winneshiek County Conservation is a county department led by local staff and a locally appointed board. But we are still affected by statewide decisions and “Funding the Trust” would have a major impact on Winneshiek County.
First, a little background info on the Trust:
In 2010, 63% of Iowans voted to amend Iowa’s constitution to create the Trust, essentially setting up a bank account. The next time the state sales tax is raised, funds generated from the first 3/8 cent of that increase will, by constitutional requirement, get deposited into this account. The funds can only be spent in the ways determined by a set distribution formula. Because the sales tax has not increased since the passing of the constitutional amendment, the trust has not been funded (the bank account is empty).
The distribution formula is not part of the constitutional amendment itself, but it was developed and publicized before the amendment passed. The committee that worked on both the amendment and the distribution formula was made up of legislators from both parties and representatives from the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Pheasants Forever, the Conservation Districts of Iowa, and more.
The Trust is meant to support natural resources and outdoor recreation, so the distribution formula parcels out different percentages of money into categories like Watershed Protection, Trails, and Soil Conservation and Water Protection. Right now, the distribution formula also dictates that:
- Funds are administered through “existing infrastructure” to reduce bureaucracy. The goal was to increase the funds available for use, not create complex webs for distributing those funds.
- Funds cannot be used for regulatory efforts, enforcement, eminent domain, condemnation, or litigation.
- There are required yearly audits and reports to the legislature.
Because the Trust was created by constitutional amendment, it can only be changed by another amendment. The distribution formula is considered “law” and can be changed by vote of the legislature.
So, what would it mean if the Trust is funded?
It would mean more funding for local landowners to voluntarily install best management practices on their land to protect their soil and water. It would mean more funding to plant prairies in our roadsides for pollinator habitat. It would mean more funding to maintain and improve county, state, and city parks, forests, recreational areas, and wildlife areas. It would mean more funding for communities for flood protection and control.
But those are generic statements that could apply to any county in Iowa. What about here, in Winneshiek County?
We are lucky to have incredible natural resources and recreational opportunities that both improve quality of life and provide economic benefit. Part of our work at Winneshiek County Conservation is to make sure these resources and recreational opportunities are here in the future, so we think about how we will improve water quality at Lake Meyer to keep it a viable fishing destination. We think about how we will deal with aging infrastructure like showerhouses and shelters at Lake Meyer and Kendallville campgrounds. We think about how we will continue to expand opportunities for recreation and tourism through development at Neste Valley Recreational Area or expanding our trail system.
Funds from the Trust could be used for all those projects, and more.
Legislative policies and actions are complex and broad. This article is not meant to fully explain the Invest in Iowa Act, the Trust, or the distribution formula. But as the legislative season heats up and that swirl of conversation about the Trust turns into a whirlpool, hopefully it and our office can serve as a resource if you choose to jump in and make your voice heard.