Hell to pay

By ART CULLEN

As we have said before: Only one of Iowa’s leading politicians has offered a practical solution out of a crisis over water quality in the Tall Corn State. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, several months ago on Iowa Public Television called for a water quality summit after the November elections to work out a political solution that could pave the way for a breakthrough in a federal lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. Gronstal has told The Storm Lake Times repeatedly that the litigants must be part of the discussion, because a political settlement and a legal settlement go hand-in-hand.

Notably, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, has said she would be a part of the summit which Gronstal would like to see staged in Storm Lake.

Two important players have yet to send in their RSVPs: Gov. Terry Branstad and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor.

It was odd when Vilsack appeared with Branstad to call for a plan that would rob school infrastructure funding to create a huge slush fund for corporate agriculture to deploy towards water quality projects. The fund would steal billions in sales tax revenue from schools. Gronstal stood in the way of that plan, and has withstood criticism from Branstad for it. We understand that.

What we cannot understand is Vilsack whirling into Ames last week to tell us that there would be “hell to pay” if we do not create some sort of giant fund for water quality. He said the state’s political leaders should be locked in a room and not be let out until they deliver what he sees as a solution. He said he is embarrassed that Minnesota is doing more.

We wondered what he meant by that. We were not invited to his speech in Ames. But he was holding a press conference in Des Moines on Saturday, so we dispatched our reporter down to ask him for some answers to basic questions. Such as: What did he mean by “hell to pay?” Does he know something we don’t by virtue of his position? And, did he mean to get in front of Sen. Gronstal and then give a backhand, knowing full well that Branstad has been trying to frame Gronstal as the man standing in the way of a water quality fund?

With friends like that …

We thought that maybe we could help him clarify his remarks. However, Vilsack told us on Saturday that he would not respond to our questions because he was campaigning for Hillary Clinton. To make comments that might reflect on his job as Agriculture Secretary could violate the Hatch Act. Seriously. The governor could not step outside the hall, take off his “H” button and pretend he was a Cabinet member momentarily to illuminate one of the great public policy questions of our time: How can agriculture and the environment flourish in harmony?

We have asked his USDA staff for months to arrange for a brief phone call where a couple of those questions might be answered. So far, we have been stiffed.

Why? Why would Tom Vilsack duck these simple questions? Who is yanking his chain and why?

We were so miffed we descended into a dark hour remembering that Tom Vilsack was governor for eight years and never arranged a water quality summit to solve nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River. To the contrary, he tried to wipe out the lake restoration fund in his early days as governor, as Branstad has attempted to do in Vilsack’s wake. So please, Mr. Secretary, forgive us a sigh of exasperation.

Vilsack has not attempted to intervene as a friend of the three counties and Des Moines to arrange a mediated settlement of this lawsuit. A phone call or two would not violate any federal law or get him disbarred.

After all, the water works lawsuit boiled over under Vilsack’s federal watch. This is not primarily a state issue. The only response that can be comprehensive is a federal one. Iowa can merely nibble at the edges.

Vilsack has arranged for billions of dollars to be sprayed across Iowa as agri-industry attempts to re-engineer the north Iowa landscape with bioreactors and turn our prairie lakes into nitrate-filtering wetlands. You have to give him credit for that. And he is shining a light on polluted surface and sub-surface drainage into rivers and lakes.

Vilsack also is doing a strange dance with Branstad. Branstad calls for a big, bold and misguided slush fund and Vilsack is right there to join the refrain. More recently, Branstad sort of rehashed the same plan that fell flat in the legislature (with House Republicans opposed, too). Vilsack days later comes to Ames with his “hell to pay” verse. We are not certain who is calling the tune. When Vilsack two-steps away from sympathetic us it makes us wonder whether he is hearing the Farm Bureau cowbell struck on the Agribusiness Association of Iowa beat.

Vilsack has it half-right: Get the political leaders of this state into a room. Gronstal has it fully right: Get the counties and the water works in the room with them. Figure out what it takes to make the lawsuit go away. Cash plus accountability. That’s all it takes. Then agree in that room to a legislative package that effectuates a legal settlement. The USDA needs to be in that room and a part of that settlement, and so do our Congressional leaders as a new farm bill discussion takes place next year.

Hell to pay. Just what does that mean?