DES MOINES — The Senate agreed Wednesday to pump up to $50 million annually into water-quality improvements through 2029 after turning back an effort to raise a constitutionally protected state sales tax that would have generated considerably more.
Senators voted 31-19 to use a mix of a water metering tax and the gambling-funded revenue available after the state pays off bonds used to finance community attractions and tourist destinations under the Vision Iowa Program. The state money would go toward cost-sharing plans to address water-quality challenges from urban wastewater issues to farm runoff pollutants.
Two Democrats joined 29 GOP senators supporting the bill, while 18 Democrats and one independent voted no.
Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, called Senate File 512 the “next logical step” to continue momentum in implementing Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy. But critics said it was too tepid of an approach in addressing a problem estimated to require billions of dollars to correct.
“This bill provides policy and funding for long-term, collaborative, science-based, non-regulatory projects that I believe will move the needle in reducing the flow of nutrients into Iowa’s rivers and streams,” said Rozenboom, who noted the state money would be supplemented by federal and local governments, industry and Iowa’s agricultural sector.
The bill now goes to the House, which is working on its own plan, for consideration in the waning days the 2017 legislative session.
Passage of the legislation came after senators voted 34-16 to turn back an effort by Ocheyedan independent Sen. David Johnson to better fund conservation, recreation and water-quality improvements by increasing the state sales by three-eighths of a penny. That would generate up to $200 million to be deposited in the voter-approved and constitutionally projected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
One Republican joined Johnson and 14 Democrats in supporting the alternative. Johnson noted that voters approved the trust in 2010 but it “sits empty without a dime of funding.”
Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the vote was “a chance to do something historic that the voters want," but Rozenboom said the amendment called for raising taxes and was inconsistent with the intent of the bill.
Senators later voted 33-17 to oppose an amendment to put money generated by SF 512 into the trust fund.
Under the approved legislation, a portion of an existing tax on tap water would be converted to an excise tax dedicated to water-quality efforts, a pot of money growing to $12 million from 2019 to 2021. Another provision would capture $15 million from gaming in 2021 when bonds for Vision Iowa projects are paid.
Combined with more than $20 million in various programs annually that go toward water-quality improvements, Rozenboom said that would create a pool of $50 million, which could nearly double with matching funds until the package sunsets in 2030.
“I think we all understand that we do have a problem with water quality,” said Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola. “I think it’s important that we move the ball, and I think that this bill does that. Given our financial situation, our circumstances, this is probably the best that we can do right now.”
In the House, the Appropriations Committee has approved an amended version of House File 612 that would make $513 million available for water-quality improvements from 2019 to 2031.
Slightly less than half would come from the excise tax on metered water, which would be phased in and split between helping finance loans and grants.
The excise tax money would supplement the more than $20 million a year in existing funds and, under the House plan, would be used for edge-of-field and infield water and soil conservation, demonstration projects, research and water-quality measurements.
(James Q. Lynch contributed to this report.)