Leave sales taxes alone

BY ART CULLEN

The intractable dispute over Iowa water quality that saw the Des Moines Water Works sue Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties is washing over Storm Lake as the school board tries to figure out how to ease space needs at the elementary and middle schools. The corn and soybeans whose fertilization fouls the Raccoon River — which emanates in Buena Vista County near Marathon — are fed to hogs that young men and women slaughter at Tyson in Storm Lake. Those young men and women have started families at a pace we could not envision when the middle school was built in 1992. Their children are jamming the classrooms.

The school board would like to expand its Early Childhood Education complex so Supt. Carl Turner could shift grades among the facilities — move an elementary grade to Early Childhood, move a middle school grade to the elementary building. It’s practical. It makes sense. It seems flexible.

And it will be expensive, no doubt.

Turner is predicating any new construction on the school sales tax that is set to expire in 2029. He worries, rightly, that in the current political environment asking for a tax increase on the property base will result in defeat and delay. The sales tax, which voters approved strictly for school infrastructure, would avoid a property tax increase. It should be extended.

But the tax is under attack in the Statehouse.

Gov. Terry Branstad proposed last legislative session a multi-billion-dollar water quality fund that could be used to mitigate the water works’ claims and pay agland owners to be good stewards. Branstad would freeze the amount of sales tax revenue for schools and redirect its growth to water quality. The school and construction lobbies would suggest that if sales tax revenue to schools were capped at today’s level it would be insufficient to keep up with construction needs in the future.

So, the workers at Tyson who buy school supplies for their children would find their sales tax payments going to agland owners who install bioreactors while living in California and paying no sales tax in Iowa. And Storm Lake could not build the size of facility it needs to accommodate the children of food processors woven into the supply chain that pollutes the Raccoon directly and indirectly.

The politics of this is getting convoluted.

As Turner notes, East School at the heart of the Early Childhood Education complex, was built in the 1950s when Hygrade employed 500. Tyson employs more than 1,200 in its pork plant alone. It’s like this all over Iowa as rural schools grow cobwebs and urban schools grow crowded or inefficient. It is obvious that we will need to rebuild our education complex as previous generations did. The sales tax is necessary to keep pace.

The legislature should leave the school sales tax alone. It does not make sense to use it to pay for water quality corporate welfare.

Likewise, many on the left and right would like to use a fractional sales tax passed by voters in 2010 for the environment for ag-industrial welfare. When voters approved of the Outdoor Trust Fund by amending the Iowa Constitution they thought it would be used for parks, fish and wildlife. That’s how it was sold, as a way to make Iowa more amenable to young folks in particular. It was not sold as a way to transfer funds from the working class on which the sales tax is levied most heavily to the farmland investor class. It was meant to give something back to the working stiff in return for his sales tax contribution: better fishing in Storm Lake, better hunting at Sunken Grove and Martin’s Access, more public recreation for all. Rather, many of us would like to use that fund to buy off the water works and let the Koch Brothers fertilize where they will as they will.

The Republican power structure in Iowa is not vested in seeking a negotiated settlement with the water works, at least not yet. That makes a water quality fund that goes beyond the existing public dole unnecessary. Plenty of federal funds await the good stewards who are out there, if they are inclined to apply.

The Iowa Legislature would do well just to lay off water quality funding in the next session.

Let the water works case proceed. A judge could throw it out between now and this summer, when the case is scheduled for a federal bench trial in Sioux City. Then a water quality fund is in order. Until then, leave the current sales tax structure as it is. A case has not been made, no plan realized, no vision articulated that would make good use of the funds. We do not know how the Raccoon River case will be rationalized. Let the outcome of the case be the guide for the legislature. It might not have to do anything as a result. A judge could say that river pollution is just a cost of doing business, and the water works had better buck up and set rates accordingly. Or, a judge could say that the water works deserves $100 million and that we must reduce the amount of acreage planted to the soy-corn complex. We then can make an intelligent assessment of how much is needed to remediate an adjudicated pollution.

Already we know clearly that the Storm Lake School District needs more space urgently. A sales tax is in place that seems acceptable to most Iowans, certainly most Storm Lakers who are proud of the tremendous high school renovation wrought through sales tax revenues. Messing with it necessarily will increase ag property taxes, there just is no other way around it. That is certainly not what voters suggested when they put Republicans entirely in charge of Iowa government on Nov. 8.