First things first

By ART CULLEN

A coalition of groups announced Monday that they will press the Iowa Legislature next session to increase the sales tax to help improve water quality. This after Iowa Farm Bureau policy delegates last Thursday voted in favor of increasing the tax by 3/8th of a percentage point to help agriculture address nutrient runoff and soil conservation. Gov. Branstad remains opposed to increasing the sales tax and says a multi-billion fund can be created without a tax hike.

State Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kauffman notes that this is a big shift. “I am hearing water quality now being mentioned at almost every Republican fundraising event,” Kauffman said. “That’s a pretty fundamental change.”

Republicans read the past two years of Iowa Polls suggesting that strong majorities are fed up with Iowa’s filthy water. Those same polls say that a clear majority of Iowans agree with the Des Moines Water Works claim in its lawsuit that drainage tiles should be regulated under the Clean Water Act.

Nobody is calling for regulation, except for Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal.

They’re talking about robbing education or state parks to create a huge water quality fund aimed mainly at agri-industry. Our sales taxes will help preserve Monsanto’s and Pioneer’s and Koch Fertilizer’s footprint in our fields. We are shifting funds from the consuming class to the investor class by diverting sales tax revenues to projects organized by corporate agriculture interests.

Branstad would deny funding to education. The coalition that announced its support for a sales tax increase wants the money to go to agriculture, not state or county parks or to lake restoration.

That is not what voters were thinking when they approved of a constitutional amendment allowing a fractional sales tax for the environment and recreation. Iowa has the smallest number of acres in public land of any state. It has among the most polluted and sedimented lakes. We thought we were voting for more county park support, full funding for the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, and more dredging for Black Hawk Lake. That is not the direction that agri-industry wants the funding to go.

We believe that Iowa’s agricultural water quality problem is a federal issue best addressed by Congress in the new Farm Bill. Iowa can help inform that work by arriving at a negotiated settlement of the water works claims through our political leaders. They can transmit the Iowa Plan to the Farm Bill framers. But we cannot expect that Iowa has the wherewithal to correct water quality problems wrought by a global grain/livestock system. Iowa can help farmers at the margins by filling in cost-share holes and by providing more sustainable research through Iowa State University.

A portion of any sales tax increase of course must go to ag conservation, since 98% of our land is tied up in agriculture. It sounds as if any water quality proposal — whether though a tax hike or not — will leave other environmental programs wanting as usual.

A sales tax increase should go primarily to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, not the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

Gov. Branstad should forget about robbing school infrastructure funds and get on board with the Farm Bureau. Its position is superior to his. Robbing schools is not good politics.

But the real role that Iowa political leaders can play is first to find a settlement with the water works. Then, after consulting federal authorities, fit an Iowa Plan that meets the terms of the settlement in confluence with federal funding. We don’t need a $6 billion Iowa fund if the Farm Bill does its job. But it is good to see Republicans waking up to Iowa’s water quality crisis.

 

Subsidized housing

Here’s how the low-income housing tax credit works: A developer is awarded federal tax credits by the state, which he sells off to investors to reduce their tax liabilities. So the federal government is subsidizing developers and investors to build apartments for the working poor who can barely afford the rent in the new digs. Some, not all, become mini Cabrini Greens where the police might as well have a substation. These subsidies do not help their target, the poor, all that much.

We agree with City Councilman Tyson Rice, who says we need more “market-rate” housing, not more “low-income.” He raised the issue on the news that a developer wants to put up 60 units using low-income housing tax credits. Apparently low-income is all we can sell. That says something about Storm Lake.

In a more perfect world wages would be sufficient to support rents without subsidy. But even in Storm Lake, in the breadbasket of the world, single-family housing developments go fallow while low-income, subsidized housing can’t be built fast enough. The trend obviously is bigger than us or a lone city councilman. The project will get approved, and we suppose it should be given the state of affairs. But it should force us to ask how we can get to a place where we can build without corporate welfare.