DES MOINES — Water quality, beginning farmer programs, taxes and research funding are among the priorities for Iowa agricultural leaders as they prepare for lawmakers to return to Des Moines for the 2019 session of the Iowa Legislature.
With the 2018 elections out of the way, Republicans have maintained control of the governor’s office as well as both houses of the Legislature, but the margins have changed, and the priorities may shift as well.
Last year, a bill to provide a long-term funding stream for water quality projects was approved by the Legislature, but Gov. Kim Reynolds and legislative leaders all said that bill was only a start and more funding would be needed. The question some analysts have had was whether they would follow through on that idea or whether the passage of SF512 last year would put a lid on water quality debates for a couple of years.
The answer may come early in the 2019 session, which kicks off Jan. 14. Doing something like passing a version of IWILL (Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy) is one possibility.
“That would be a big move,” said Lindsey Greiner, president of the Iowa Soybean Association, which has supported IWILL.
Iowa voters approved a referendum in 2010 saying if the state’s sales tax is increased, the first 3/8 of a cent would go toward a natural resources and outdoor recreation trust fund that would include money for water quality. The idea has some public support and support from Democrats in the Legislature, but Republican leadership has shied away from the idea of a tax hike.
Some agricultural leaders say approval of IWILL might have to be accompanied by changes in the allocation of funds. And Greiner said it might also be part of a tax reform package because it is likely any sales tax increase would be for a full cent, rather than the 3/8 cent level.
“Last year we dealt with water quality, but not in a complete way,” said Aaron Lehman, president of Iowa Farmers Union.
He suggested the additional money from a 1 cent sales tax increase could go toward items such as property tax reform or mental health funding.
Property taxes and mental health care are both important issues, said Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill. Iowa needs to do a better job providing mental health care, especially in rural areas, he said. But present funding systems for it are not equitable, he added, saying they depend too heavily on property taxes.
The Farm Bureau has argued that property taxes should be used for property-related items, and other tax sources, such as income taxes or sales taxes, should be used for non-property-related needs.
Hill also said the state needs to address its Beginning Farmer Tax Credit program. Legislation passed earlier in the decade made some changes to that program and increased its spending cap, but that legislation sunset, and as a result, the spending cap dropped from $12 million to $6 million. The program has been unable to offer any new loans for the past year. While it should be able to offer some new loans in 2019, that number will be limited unless lawmakers increase the cap.
Research is also an important topic. Hill said lawmakers last spring approved funding for building a much-needed new state veterinary diagnostic lab at Iowa State University, but that funding level is probably too low.
Lehman said he knows it is unlikely to happen, but he is still hopeful legislators might take another look at providing funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. That center lost its state funding at the end of the 2017 legislative session. It still exists, but operates on a shoestring budget funded by income from an endowment.
“I think that was a case where it was a political target of a small number of legislators,” Lehman said. “I think that if you polled Iowans, most would be in favor of the work that the Leopold Center is doing.”
The past two years, he said, appeared to include some long-time pet projects and political score-settling, something that can happen more easily when any one party controls all branches of state government. Hopefully, he said, that is over and lawmakers can move on to a more bipartisan approach.
Agricultural leaders say there are several other items they will be watching this legislative session. There is support for more funding for the renewable infrastructure cost-share program (for items such as blender pumps for gas stations). There has also been discussion of the master matrix used for livestock facilities, with some rural groups pushing for an update to the matrix and other farm groups pushing hard to keep the existing matrix in place.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig is also asking for more money to deal with livestock diseases, citing the negative impact any major animal disease outbreak would have in the state.