Water quality and tax reform may be grabbing the early headlines as the annual legislative session heats up in Des Moines, but up here in Iowa’s northwest corner, workforce and economic development issues continue to dominate discussions. These should not be mutually exclusive conversations by our elected leaders.
In 2010, 63 percent of Iowans voted to amend our Iowa Constitution to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. This Trust Fund is specifically created and legally committed for the “purpose of protecting and enhancing water quality and natural areas in this state including parks, trails, and fish and wildlife habitat, and conserving agricultural soils in this state.”
At its core, the Trust Fund is about Iowa’s quality of Life, workforce development and economic development. It is a fact in our region that many employers are eager to invest in expanding their workforce but Siouxland unemployment continues to hover around record lows. Making Iowa more competitive and economically attractive means offering the workforce of today and tomorrow not just a solid paycheck, but a quality of life that includes abundant outdoor recreation opportunities for themselves and their families.
During her January Condition of the State address, Gov. Kim Reynolds said her vision for our state is “… an Iowa overflowing with opportunity — opportunity for our working families, young people, and our communities, both rural and urban.”
The great news for Iowans is that the opportunity described by the governor – an Iowa overflowing with opportunity – can be unlocked by finally funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Funding that would flow from the first three-eighths cent of any increase in state sales tax, which is one of many things under discussion as state leaders debate restructuring Iowa tax code to increase our economic competitiveness.
Perhaps even more important is that the Trust Fund is not one of those schemes that will send our Siouxland tax dollars to Des Moines never to be seen or heard from again. A statutory formula outlines for taxpayers just how the constitutionally-protected funds must be spent. The Trust Fund and its formula provide the initial funding necessary to help implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, while also providing quality of life components like trails, outdoor recreation and access to public land that Iowans demand. The funds will flow to every corner of the state to ensure that Iowa can attract and retain a qualified workforce.
In fact, over $670 million in unmet, shovel-ready conservation and quality of life projects have already been identified and are ready to go once funding is available. Projects, for instance, that would support better access and amenities at Stone State Park and Little Sioux Park, resources to better protect the Loess Hills, and funding to support Sioux City recreational trails.
Sixty-three percent of Iowans voted to create the Trust Fund in 2010. Recent polling indicates seven in 10 likely Iowa voters support funding the Trust through the 3/8-cent sales tax. Iowans have spoken. It is time for the Legislature to get the Trust Fund funded. Siouxland is counting on it.
Doug Palmer is a member of the board of trustees for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa. He is president of Tegra Corporation in Sioux City.