Do no harm

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

Iowans can check this off the list on the march toward progress: A woman delivered the Condition of the State Address before the legislature last week. Gov. Kim Reynolds received praise from Republicans and polite applause from Democrats as Reynolds formally stepped into her own. She called for better treatment of women in government. Hooray for that. And then she got into the policy stuff.

It would appear that Reynolds’ main pitches in a session leading to a general election are these: First, do something about water quality. Second, do something about taxes.

We have spent tons of newsprint arguing our point that we do not, as a state, need to be shoveling money at the agri-industrial complex — not, at least, until we can agree on what should be done. Enough state funding is devoted to more than satisfy the demand among farmers for conservation cost-shares. That is really the job of the federal government. But state leaders have to make us believe that they are doing something. The more money you throw at the problem the more serious you are, even if it doesn’t work. And it hasn’t. Water quality will improve when farmers adopt more profitable and sustainable practices, as they slowly are. No amount of funding will speed it that much until farmers and landlords are convinced that a new approach to the landscape is at least as profitable as the existing approach. They are becoming convinced. And, if we had a truly clear strategy that will bring legions of farmers and landowners on board with a big push for a sustainable landscape then count us in. But we do not. We have a lot of people sincerely trying to figure out, from Ames to Des Moines to Storm Lake, what to do with the funds we cannot spend already and how to evangelize landlords to take advantage of it. Two-thirds of farmers surveyed say they want to do more conservation work but their landlords don’t. The cheapest and best thing to do for water quality is to re-appropriate the $300,000 state appropriation to the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. It will leverage millions more in grants for research that will show us the right way forward. That would be the conservative approach. Also, the plans on the table are bad. They would tax water consumers, not polluters, to clean up water by taxing metered water. It makes more sense to tax fertilizer sales — hah! we know that was good for a laugh.

The second order of business would be to do something about taxes, since you can’t do much about anything else. The budget is in the tank. Reynolds is faced with cutting $50 million out of the gate because the legislature didn’t appropriate enough last spring. Then she will be faced with the fiscal and human health disaster that is Medicaid “reform.” That is costing the state, not saving it, $100 million per year by our account. We shall see what sleights of hand can shove that problem past November. Keep your eye on the middle clam shell. Because of that mess, the legislature cannot give anything away. Reynolds wants to do it with a big tax reform, much like Congress did when it couldn’t get anything else done. Who doesn’t want a tax cut? Reynolds starts by eliminating deductibility of federal taxes and then lowering and flattening the rates with the windfall. Terry Branstad proposed that only about a dozen times. It never got done, even when Republicans controlled the legislature. When the budget is in a shambles it is best to do no more harm. Getting into a huge tax reform discussion while cutting $100 million from schools and parks and nursing homes could be unseemly at worst and a fiscal disaster at best. Again, take the conservative approach and just say no to doing anything because you are liable to make an even bigger mess. Unless, of course, you want to do something about Medicaid. Which Reynolds doesn’t. She says mistakes were made but she has said she is not going back. She assures us it will all get straightened out. We doubt it. She will have to campaign on that.

As for the other issue that matters, education, prepare for a budget like last year or worse. We are thrilled to hear good old Rep. Dan Huseman, R-Aurelia, say that he thinks we should extend the school sales tax for infrastructure. That really matters, especially in Storm Lake with plans for a new early childhood education center. But then, Huseman is an old-fashioned conservative who realizes you have to pay for rural schools if you want them. We wish the legislature could knock down tuition at community colleges and state universities, and that they could help the Iowa Tuition Grant for private colleges. Not this year. And, we wish that something more than a 1.5% increase could be allowed for K-12 operating budgets, starved the last many years. That does not appear to be in the cards.

We hope the legislature forgets about the death penalty and all the other social wedge issues that come up in election sessions. Well, we can hope.