When it comes to water quality, the Iowa Legislature will start the 2018 session right where it left off in April.
After all-night negotiations in the final hours of the 2017 legislative session failed to produce an agreement between the GOP majorities in the Senate and House, leaders are predicting quick action when the Legislature convenes Monday in Des Moines.
Calling it a “generational challenge for Iowans,” House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, is adamant that “water quality is going to be something that we will get done this year.”
“We have every intention of passing a meaningful bill on water quality this year,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, is lobbying for the House to approve a Senate-passed water quality bill, which is a bill the House approved two years ago.
“At the moment, I believe that is the clearest path to a new water quality initiative,” Dix said.
The 2017 session ended with the House and Senate holding fast to their own versions of water quality legislation.
In short, the Senate version would have appropriated $744 million split among several pots or silos for water quality, nutrient reduction and water and wastewater treatment.
The House plan called for $513 million but included a bonding feature that floor manager Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said “explodes the funding possibilities.” Rather than “silo” the funds, it would give preference for collaborative, watershed-wide projects involving cities, industries and rural landowners.
Democrats think the House plan is “less bad” than the Senate bill, according to Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, but he thinks his party could improve it.
He predicted the House will accept the Senate’s “facade of a plan” early in the session to give Gov. Kim Reynolds a win on water quality — without giving water quality advocates time to lobby for something better.
House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, also prefers the House version of water quality legislation to the Senate’s. He was among the Democrats who voted for it last year.
However, he would prefer the Legislature focus more on “healthy soil issues” rather than solely on water quality “because I think we get more buy-in from Iowa farmers on those issues.”
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, would prefer that Republicans reach out to Democrats, “who are very interested in making sure Iowans have access to safe drinking water.”
“You know, rivers are not Republican and Democrat,” she said. “I would really prefer to see a solution that bring ideas from all communities and both parties instead of trying to rush a bill to the governor’s desk.”
Regardless of what version of water quality legislation is passed, Hagenow predicted it won’t be the end of the discussion.
“I don’t see this particular bill as the beginning or the end of that issue,” he said. “You have changes in technology that happen all of the time, new ways to collaborate, new ways to make sure the right dollars are going to the right projects.”
Hagenow said his goal in 2018 is to “put some meaningful resources in place, a sustainable, ongoing source of money.”
Democrats — and some Republicans — think that should include approval of a hike in the state sales tax that would direct three-eighths of a cent to fund conservation, recreation and water-quality improvements. That would raise an estimated $200 million to be deposited in the voter-approved and constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
In addition to the three-eighths-cent sales tax revenue, Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, is calling for an increase in the fertilizer tax “to encourage better use of fertilizer,” which is seen as a contributor to water quality problems.
The state levies a 17-cent-per-ton tax on fertilizer and soil conditioners. In recent years, the tax has raised $720,000 and $987,000, all deposited in the general fund.
In addition, a groundwater protection fee on nitrogen-based fertilizer has generated more than $1 million each year for Department of Natural Resources water quality efforts.
“We need to get serious about it, and this is the year to do it,” Staed said.