More than ten years after Iowa voters changed the Iowa Constitution to protect the outdoors, the state trust fund designated for it may finally have money coming in.
Sen. Dan Dawson (R-Council Bluffs) introduced the language twice, for the second time in Senate Study Bill 3157, which advocates take as a good sign for the energy behind getting it passed finally.
“We feel very optimistic or excited about the opportunity that that second bill or essentially a second opportunity came forward this session,” said Anna Gray, the public policy director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
Language for funding the trust was originally in the tax reform bill passed in early March. It didn’t make it into the final bill, but Dawson introduced the bill again on its own.
SSB 3157 replaces the local option sales tax with a statewide sales tax. Some of the money then goes back to the communities to make up for no longer having the local sales tax, and a percentage goes to funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
The trust is a constitutionally protected pot of money for conservation and natural development projects and it’s funded by a percentage of an increased sales tax. Conservation groups have been pushing for years for the sales tax adjustments which would funnel money toward it, but there hasn’t been concentrated movement until now.
“This seems like the most momentum that we’ve ever seen,” Gray said. “And so that’s something that I hope we can continue throughout the legislative session, and finally get this thing funded.”
The formula for funding the trust has changed though, which makes some groups hesitant to fully support the new legislation.
“We think that there are some improvements that could be made to it,” said Alicia Vasto with the Iowa Environmental Council. “You know, it does ultimately fund the trust, which would be huge. But some of the changes to the formula give us pause.”
Vasto said Dawson chalked up the formula changes to compromises with other stakeholders.
She said the new formula ultimately directs less money to the trust fund than the previous formula, and they have concerns about the state of tax policy in Iowa generally, considering it will receive less in income taxes.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation was one of the groups who helped write the first formula 12 years ago when the trust fund was first introduced, and Gray said it isn’t surprising it’s changed. Especially since the politics of the state have changed and some legislators who originally supported the fund aren’t in office anymore.
Gray said the change also doesn’t bother them because having any money going into the trust is better than it not being funded at all.
“It’s across the board a net gain,” she said. “The original formula, we were supportive of it, but in many ways it’s hypothetical. Those dollars have never existed. And so, this is an opportunity, by funding the trust, for real dollars to start flowing into these programs.”
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation did an analysis of the effect of the new formula writing, “Compared to FY22 appropriations, the proposal would significantly increase funding for conservation, which would have an immediate impact on Iowa’s natural resources.”
An estimated $191 million will be going into the fund annually at the beginning, constitutionally guaranteed to be directed toward conservation programs such as watershed protections, soil and water conservation, and local conservation partnerships, among others. And even though some categories will be getting less than they were under the original formula, they’ll be getting more than they do now without the fund.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity,” Gray said. “I think we’ve heard some legislative support for it that we haven’t in the past. I think we know this is something that Iowans want and have been asking for.”
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