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Branstad to push water-quality efforts during tour this week

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Terry Branstad Soil and Water Conservation Week

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad talks with Becca Meerdink, Plymouth and Sioux County water quality initiative watershed coordinator, on April 22, 2015,  before signing a Soil and Water Conservation Week proclamation in rural Le Mars. Branstad will participate in a water quality forum Tuesday in Storm Lake.

DES MOINES | Gov. Terry Branstad will tour the state this week to discuss and observe water quality practices undertaken by Iowa farmers.

Branstad said Monday he continues to develop plans to provide state funding for water-quality projects, and he hopes to be able to work with state lawmakers on the issue in the 2017 legislative session, after no agreement was reached this year.

“We have a nutrient reduction strategy, and we also have a program to help municipalities deal with water treatment issues,” Branstad said Monday at his weekly news conference. "But we need long-term, reliable funding for that."

Branstad kicked off his water quality tour Monday night with a visit to Bill Hammitt's farm in western Iowa's Harrison County. Beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday, the governor will participate in a Buena Vista County Water Quality Roundtable Discussion and Watershed Tour at Kings Point Resort, on the shores of Storm Lake.

During the 2016 legislative session, Branstad proposed sharing revenue from the state sales tax for school infrastructure projects with water-quality projects. Leaders in the Republican-led Iowa House proposed diverting some current resources from the state’s infrastructure fund and a water-metering tax to water-quality programs. Leaders in the Democrat-led Iowa Senate did not offer a proposal.

Branstad said he considered his proposal a framework and has been willing to work with lawmakers. He said he supported the House plan and wished Senate Democrats would have considered it. Democrats opposed the House plan because it drew money from the state’s general fund, which funds many other programs, including health care and education.

“I want to see us do something,” Branstad said. “I think what the House passed was a great start. I’d like to see us go even further and provide a more long-term, reliable source of funding for water quality.”

Branstad has tweaked his proposal, saying recently he supports the House plan in the immediate future and implementing his plan of splitting sales tax funds between water-quality and school infrastructure projects in 2029, when the current 1-percent sales tax for infrastructure is scheduled to expire.

With the tax scheduled to sunset, Sioux City public school leaders said they have limited bonding authority left to fund additional school infrastructure projects. A 20-year extension, they argue, would help the district replace one or more aging elementary schools and modernize the three high schools that are nearly 50 years old.

Others think the state should implement a three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax increase to fund natural resources projects. In 2010, voters approved the creation of a natural resources fund, with the understanding lawmakers eventually would increase the state sales tax to fill the fund. The latter has not happened.

“It is great to see Gov. Branstad recognize that we need a constitutionally protected and sustainable source of funding for water quality through the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, but his proposal doesn’t fulfill the promise of what Iowa voters approved in 2010,” Mark Langgin, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Iowa and an Iowa Conservation Voters board member, said in a news release. “To fulfill that promise, the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Branstad need to take action and raise the sales tax three-eighths of 1 percent and fully fund the (trust fund).”

Branstad and many state lawmakers have been hesitant to support a tax increase for water-quality programs.

Branstad said he will use this week’s tour to learn about what farmers are doing to protect water quality on their land.

The governor also said he continues to work with lawmakers on water-quality funding plans but said he has not had discussions with Senate Democrats.

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