Branstad pushes water quality proposal using school tax fund

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A proposal by Gov. Terry Branstad to scoop money from an extended school building sales tax fund and use part of it for water quality initiatives dominated a discussion by legislative leaders Tuesday of their priorities as they look to next week's session.

Branstad will ask lawmakers to extend a sales tax passed in 2008 for school district building improvements, and use a portion of the money to help farmers pay for environmental practices designed to improve water quality.

Water issues have been in focus as Des Moines Water Works had to spend $1.5 million last year to operate a system that removed record amounts of nitrates from drinking water to remain in compliance with federal regulations. The water utility said nitrates came from fertilizers washing out of farm fields.

The 1-cent sales tax, which has generated about $3.2 billion for schools since 2008, is set to expire in 2029. Branstad's proposal would extend it by 20 years and allow schools to take the first $10 million increase in growth each year. That would provide an estimated $20.7 billion extra for schools from 2017 through 2049. Branstad's initiative would divert the remaining growth in tax revenue each year to a water quality fund. He estimated about $4.7 billion will be generated over the next 32 years.

"It's the biggest and boldest initiative probably I have ever put together in all my years as governor," he said.

Several school district administrators and farm group advocates including corn and soybean growers stood behind Branstad as he announced the proposal at an annual legislative seminar hosted by The Associated Press.

Paul Gausman, the superintendent of Sioux City public schools, said he is willing to share the future growth of the sales tax revenue with farmers if it means the tax used to replace aging buildings gets extended.

"I have students in a building right now in Sioux City today that was built in 1889," he said. "We have been very responsibly rebuilding those schools, renovating those schools, replacing those schools."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Des Moines to support Branstad's proposal.

"It's not as if there's an unlimited period of time to work on this water quality issue," he said. "The reality is we need to work on it now."

Vilsack mentioned a federal lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works. The utility serving about 500,000 customers filed a federal lawsuit last year seeking monetary damages and clean water permits for agriculture drainage districts.

The money in Branstad's plan, Vilsack said, would allow Iowa to work more collaboratively with the USDA in coordinating efforts to install buffer strips, cover crops and implement other conservation practices that reduce field nutrient runoff.

House Speaker-elect Linda Upmeyer said Republicans will take a look at the proposal.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said sacrificing funding designed to help schools for water quality doesn't make sense.

He said water quality is a priority and many legislators are willing to do something about it but they have provided little funding in recent years for it. He said when lawmakers did pass a one-time allocation of $20 million in 2014, Branstad vetoed it.

Branstad said his proposal is a way to provide significant water quality funding without passing a new sales tax, which he said was unlikely to get approved by the Legislature.


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