Last year at this time all manner of red lights and alarms were set off when Gov. Terry Branstad proposed gutting the lake restoration account. We were greatly relieved, then, to learn on Wednesday that the governor proposes $8.6 million for the lake restoration account next fiscal year. It means that Storm Lake probably will not have to pull out all the stops again to save the restoration effort on more than 100 Iowa lakes. More important, it means that Storm Lake will be able to mount a full-on dredging effort this year with at least $1 million in aid from the state.
Last year the governor in his proposed budget suggested cutting the lake account to $1 million. He was saved from that foolishness by State Rep. Dan Huseman, R-Aurelia, and Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, who made certain that the lake account did not suffer any cuts. It will be up to Huseman, Beall, Sen. Mark Segebart and Rep. Gary Worthan to stand strong against any pending assaults.
Branstad’s budget also includes $2 million for water quality improvement. That’s not nearly enough, considering that Iowa has among the most polluted surface water in America. Iowa needs to take big, bold and comprehensive actions to conserve soil and keep it out of our lakes and rivers. But it appears that the rate of soil erosion is increasing as extreme weather events become the norm.
We need more wetlands, more buffer strips, more pasture on rolling ground and deeper lakes to store water. We are taking baby steps. Storm Lake has been arguing for a sustained dredging program since the 1930s. Our current effort is the closest we have come, thanks to initiative by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, private donors and units of local government (primarily the City of Storm Lake).
It is a model for grassroots, inter-agency cooperation toward a common goal of a clean lake that can serve future generations.
We’re grateful the governor sees the value this year.
Yet we caution lake lovers: Remain vigilant, ever vigilant. The legislature does not safely leave Des Moines until late March.
The governor delivered his 19th Condition of the State Address to a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Tuesday. His agenda in an election-year is largely bipartisan and small-bore. Such as: making a special effort to hire military veterans by inviting them to Iowa. Who can’t like that?
Branstad indicated he could live with something close to 4% in new state money for K-12 schools. This clear signal so early in the session will be a great help to local school districts trying to plan their budgets for next year. The governor last year tried to hold state aid hostage until legislators agreed to his wholesale “reform” of education. He stood in violation of a state law that he signed demanding that the Statehouse set its “allowable growth” formula early in the session. The governor would not relent to Democratic demands to set that number until he got his reforms. The Storm Lake School District, for one, was forced to publish a budget assuming no growth in state aid, and factoring in a property tax increase. When the governor finally let go, Storm Lake was forced to refigure and republish its budget with 2% allowable growth (not enough to keep pace; the school board this year is increasing its instructional support levy because of short state aid last year). It was a huge waste of time and money. Good that the governor is not so hard-headed and counter-productive this year.
Branstad also took a stab at reducing college student loan debt by proposing a second year of tuition freezes at the three state universities (Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa). Branstad (a UI alumnus) noted that because of a tuition freeze this year student debt at Northern Iowa fell by 8%. That’s a good start. But the steady reduction in state aid during the Culver and Branstad administrations dug a hole from which it will take years to emerge. Student debt may fall again this year, but Iowans still rank near the top of the nation for student loan debt. It forces state university graduates to leave Iowa in search of higher pay to service that debt. We did not hear any new initiatives to help private-college students. We also did not hear much about community college funding. Community colleges are the fastest-growing sector in higher education but they get short shrift with politicians.
No mention was made of an increase in the state gasoline tax, either. Democrats are not likely to unilaterally move to increase the fuel tax and give Republicans a campaign silver bullet. Our shortage of road revenues is being felt across the state. With no new funding, counties should prepare to vacate roads and ditch any new hard surfacing. Replace bridges with culverts. Forget about any new four-lane highways. Once we start thinking this way, Iowans might be able to see the need for a gasoline tax increase. Not this year.