Branstad tries to attack Gronstal’s strength

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

By ART CULLEN

His water quality talk and tour is all campaign theatrics

Gov. Terry Branstad shows us how he views the fall campaign by reviving a fractured plan for a mega-fund for water quality last week and touring the Storm Lake Watershed this week. He has read the polls over two years and found that Iowans are fed up with filthy water.

During the last session of the legislature the governor offered up a hare-brained scheme to rob billions of dollars from the school sales tax and divert it to water quality schemes devised by the agri-industrial complex. Democrats and Republicans alike shot it down in about a week.

Branstad announced his “big and bold” plan side-by-side with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor. They were summoned to the podium by a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties alleging that row crop production is polluting the Raccoon River.

Until that lawsuit is resolved, talk of multi-billion water quality funds is just so much work of a wastrel.

Why try to float that lead balloon again?

But there he was last week, offering to do essentially the same thing: Split up a penny of the sales tax, with 3/8th of a cent going to a water quality fund directed by people with direct corporate links to the Agribusiness Association of Iowa.

 Some statehouse tongues would have us believe that USDA wants to shower Iowa with money if the state will come up with a match. That is probably so.

It also is true that Branstad would like to see a campaign that shifts the onus for water quality to the Democrats. Make their strength their weakness.

“Our governor offered a plan for water quality — twice — that even Tom Vilsack endorsed,” the TV ad will read. “So what is wrong with Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal? He needs to go.”

Nobody, including Vilsack, asked Gronstal his opinion before cooking up their big and bold plan.

From the gitgo the Gronstal line has been something like this:

Legislators and governors have been going along with corporate agriculture for generations without much care about environmental implications and even less funding. So a lawsuit is not the answer. A bipartisan approach to clean water without sacrificing education funding is the way forward.

That is pretty much Gronstal’s position.

And this:

Gronstal told me during two interviews over the past year that he wants to organize a water quality summit after the November elections. He realizes that you cannot have a political settlement without a settlement of the lawsuit, and vice versa. So there must be a discussion among the principal litigants (DMWW and the counties) of a political solution that can make the lawsuit go away.

This has also been the position of The Storm Lake Times for the past two years, clearly and consistently: Settle the lawsuit. DMWW has a legitimate claim. Let’s arrive at a solution that holds farmers and landowners whole while cleaning up the drinking water supply.

That deal can be made.

But the counties and their corporate funders do not want any deal with even a whiff of restrictions for agriculture. The only thing that suits the agri-gators is more money, so they will fight with every ounce of energy to pick farmers’ and landowners’ and taxpayers’ pockets.

Branstad knows this. Nobody loathes the DNR more than a Branstad. And he has proved it as governor, repeatedly.

But The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll has shown over the past two years that a strong majority of Iowans — more than 60% — agree with the Des Moines Water Works’ position. That is not a good position for the GOP, which is controlled by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and the Farm Bureau, going into an especially unpredictable campaign season.

Branstad is trotting around the state saying that he is all for water quality funding — it’s just that the Democrats won’t let him make progress.

Even though it has been Gronstal arguing for the past 25 years that we should fully fund the main environmental account REAP for once — just once. Or that we should double the appropriation for the lake restoration fund, which was the Senate Democrats’ position. Or that we should better police manure application and hoghouse siting. All of those are core Democratic positions.

Branstad has the ability to turn the Democrats into water quality opponents.

He is a tremendous politician of uncanny skill.

Remember one thing: Mike Gronstal, and only Mike Gronstal, has shown Iowa the real path forward: a negotiated settlement to what is, for now, Iowa’s biggest political problem. He is the only politician calling for everyone to come to the table. If he loses control over the Senate there will be no political compromise. There will be a federal judge’s ruling. That’s what the agri-gators are betting on, and that is precisely what Branstad is campaigning on: The bet that a judge will not recognize that agriculture has responsibilities under the Clean Water Act. Since 1972, that has been a pretty good bet.

And it is a very scary bet for the taxpayers of Buena Vista County, who could be on the hook.