DES MOINES — Despite near universal opposition, a bill to limit use of a state revolving fund to acquire land for water quality projects is advancing in the Iowa House.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a 40-year-old publicly supported nonprofit, is among the entities the legislation would prohibit from borrowing — and repaying — money from the state revolving fund to buy and hold property for local governments, county conservation boards or the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

In the past 12 years, the foundation has used the fund 54 times to acquire land for public partners in 30 counties, President Joe McGovern told a three-member House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing attended by about 50 people Tuesday. It purchased 11,086 acres at an average price of $4,418 — about 60 percent of the current $7,264 statewide average for farmland.

He said the question lawmakers should ask as they consider Senate File 548 https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislation/BillBook?ba=SF%20548&ga=88 is whether “a private entity whose mission is to protect and restore Iowa land, water and wildlife … be able to access Iowa dollars set aside for water quality?”

“I think that answer is ‘yes,’ ” McGovern said. “A private entity helping a public entity with its mission, with its goals, should be able to access public dollars. That only makes sense.”

Not to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, one of two groups supporting the bill that was approved, 32-17, in the Senate.

“This is a bill that is a matter of fairness,” Kevin Kuhle of the Farm Bureau said. The bill “seeks to ensure a level playing field for all Iowans wanting to purchase ground. This bill makes sure the state isn’t providing a competitive advantage for private organizations to compete against private citizens when seeking to acquire ground.”

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Several speakers, including Patti Cale-Finnegan, who coordinated the state revolving fund for 14 years, told lawmakers in most cases there was little, if any, competition for the land in question.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and others were able to use the fund “because there were willing sellers,” Cale-Finnegan said. “There was no coercion, no eminent domain. The lands were very well-suited for water quality, not so much for crop production.”

If the bill becomes law, the revolving fund still would be available to local governments for water and wastewater treatment plants, for example. Private landowners could borrow money for closing ag drainage wells, buffer strips, drainage basins and other qualifying water quality projects.

Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, who has 80 acres of Conservation Reserve Program acres on his Calhoun County farm, said the bill would level the playing field for everyone who wants to buy farmland.

“I’m not opposed to conservation. I’m not opposed to clean water,” he said. “I think the INHF has done a great job … but I personally believe you could still do what you do, and we could still have a fair playing field with Iowa farmers.”

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, doesn’t support the bill, but hoped it might serve as a “catalyst for a more collaborative and productive conversation … about land acquisition and purchases that benefit everybody, improve the quality of life for all of us who are worried about conservation and agriculture.”

Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, signed off on the bill because “based on the number of people here, based on the number of emails, I think this needs more attention from the entire House, not just from three members.”

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Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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