People seldom like to pay higher taxes. They are sometimes willing, however, if they believe the investment is worthwhile.
When they do, they definitely want the funds to be used as promised.
In 1998, the Iowa Legislature created the School Infrastructure Local Option, a mechanism through which voters could approve, on a county-by-county basis, a 1 percent sales tax to fund school infrastructure projects.
By 2007 every county had instituted a SILO. In response the legislature eliminated the “local option” the following year and substituted a statewide 1 percent school infrastructure tax know as Secure an Advanced Vision for Education.
Since infrastructure projects often require significant one-time expenditures, school districts are permitted to bond for such projects and use SAVE funds to help retire the bonds.
SAVE is currently slated to sunset on Dec. 31, 2029. As this expiration date approaches districts have decreasing flexibility to utilize the bonding option.
Education advocates would like to see the sunset date extended or eliminated to remove this uncertainty.
Iowa Democrats by and large support this position. Republicans hold varying opinions.
In 2010 nearly 63 percent of voters approved an amendment to the state constitution creating the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. This fund was intended to use the first 3/8 percent of any future sales tax increase to provide stable funding for natural resources.
Prior to being placed on the ballot, the amendment first needed to be approved by legislators in two consecutive general assemblies. The trust received overwhelming bipartisan support.
While advancing the amendment, lawmakers produced enabling legislation specifying exactly how the money would be distributed for public lands, soil and water conservation, watershed protection, trails, lake restoration and conservation grants and partnerships.
This formula was presented to voters in the lead-up to the 2010 election. Although creating the trust did not of itself raise taxes, the strong positive response indicated voters shared the priorities outlined and were willing to invest tax dollars to see them realized.
Six years later, legislators have yet to fund the trust.
Again Democrats for the most part favor doing so. Lately more Republicans are coming on board, but here’s where things get tricky.
Many Republicans, including key leaders, want to revamp the SAVE tax such that only 5/8 percent goes to school infrastructure, with the remaining 3/8 being used to fund the natural resources trust.
As SAVE included a sunset provision, they argue, educators should have harbored no expectation the revenue would be available indefinitely.
Some also believe a portion of SAVE dollars are being spent frivolously because they are in some cases used for athletic facilities.
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Iowans have a long history of supporting athletics as integral to a well-rounded education, and voters in every county initially approved the full 1 percent SILO tax knowing it could be used for such facilities.
If public opinion in that regard has changed, the rules for use of SAVE dollars could be adjusted without stripping away a portion of the funds.
Diverting SAVE funds to the natural resources trust is simply a way Republicans hope to appease conservation-minded voters while proving their fiscally conservative bona fides by avoiding a net increase in taxes.
But wait, there’s more.
Iowa is failing to meet federal standards for addressing impaired water quality. As such the state is in danger of being subjected to Environmental Protection Agency regulations many agricultural and business interests fear will be onerous.
Republicans hoping to avoid this have been searching for revenue to fund the nutrient reduction strategy, a state-based initiative to address key water-quality issues. Some would like to do so using the natural resources trust.
With the enabling legislation as written, over 40 percent of trust dollars would be earmarked for initiatives directly related to water quality, while many projects undertaken using the remaining funds would produce water-quality benefits as well.
Yet this isn’t enough for some legislators, who would like to abandon the original enabling legislation and put all trust dollars towards instituting the nutrient reduction strategy.
Against public lands
While they may be partially motivated by genuine concern about water quality (and/or aversion to federal regulation), many in this camp are also driven by an antithesis to public land ownership for parks, trails, wildlife areas, etc.
The current water-quality crisis, they believe, gives them cover to gut the natural resources trust of key provisions before the first dollar is spent while appearing to be committed to the environment.
So to review:
Iowans in every county once approved a 1 percent sales tax for school infrastructure. Republican leaders now want to cut that to 5/8 percent.
Iowans indicated a willingness to pay 3/8 percent more in sales tax to support natural resources. Republican leaders would prefer to repurpose existing funds.
Iowans were offered a detailed framework for how natural resources trust dollars would be spent. Now Republican leaders want to change the rules.
Voters shouldn’t accept smokescreens and shell games disguised as fiscal responsibility.
People seldom want to pay higher taxes. When they agree to do so they should expect and demand that those dollars be used as promised.