Iowa Senate Republicans maintain status quo spending on state parks, water quality improvements

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Katelyn Meyer hikes in Maquoketa Caves State Park, Aug. 14, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

No state has less public land, such as parks or nature preserves, than Iowa, and state Senate Republicans are working to make sure it stays that way. And despite the heavy nitrate load from agricultural run-off polluting the state’s waterway, the Republican Senate majority also wants to restrict efforts to address the condition of Iowa’s rivers.

Those priorities were included in the budget bill for agriculture, natural resources and environmental protection approved by the Senate on Tuesday. SF 558 allocates $43 million for all the state agencies involved in those areas.

Sen. Eric Giddens, a Democrat from Cedar Falls, pushed back against the funding levels set by the bill during the floor debate, saying the “budget continues to underfund important programs that I know our constituents in my district and across the state find very important.”

“Year after year, there’s been status quo budgets for DNR operations, forestry management, and state park operations,” Giddens said. “Our state parks are important to attracting and retaining residents in this state. This budget also has status quo funding for other non-general fund funds that address water quality, parks operations and maintenance.”

The budget levels for the many state entities involved in agriculture and the management of natural resources came in the form of an amendment to a blank budget bill approved by the Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote earlier this month. The committee approved four budget bills on April 3 that set overall spending amounts but contained no details.

“You appear to be experts at three-card monte,” Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, told the Republican majority during the Appropriations Committee meeting when the blank bills were passed. “People don’t know what the numbers are, they don’t know where the employees in the state of Iowa are going to be. We don’t have any of that information.”

Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, a Republican from Fort Dodge and chair of the Appropriations Committee, defended voting for the blank bills during the committee meeting, saying doing so would speed up the budget process.

“Our first intent would be to come to an agreed upon amount as well as language, so that we could substitute or amend or whatever needs to be done to get it off the floor and get out of here in a timely manner,” Kraayenbrink said.

Using that procedural device allowed the Republicans to introduce the actual budget as an amendment on Tuesday without holding any hearings on it, allowing time for public comment, or even providing advance copies to members of the Senate so they could review it in advance. Senate Democrats objected to this procedural maneuver, but lacked the votes to do anything about it. Republicans currently have a supermajority in the Iowa Senate.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garrett, a West Des Moines Democrat, objected to both the process used to create this budget and a particular provision the process allowed to be inserted in the bill.

SF 558 eliminates from Iowa Code the state’s commitment to expanding the amount of publicly held land in Iowa. Approved decades ago in a fit of optimism, Iowa Code Chapter 465 created a goal for the state of having “a minimum of ten percent of the state’s land area be included under some form of public open space protection by the year 2000.”

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, currently only approximately 390,000 acres of the state’s overall 36 million acres of area, or slightly more than 1 percent of all land in Iowa, is publicly held open-space land.

“To sneak this into our budget work really robs our public from the opportunity to speak out against it,” Trone Garriott said. “Because we know that Iowans want public land, they love their public land, and they will speak out for their public land. And it’s wrong to take away their opportunity to be a part of this conversation.”

Republican Sen. Dan Zumbach of Ryan responded by suggesting that 1 percent of publicly held land is already too much for the state to handle.

“We have a lot of land in public use that’s not getting taken care of the way that it could be,” he said. “I think we’re all aware, we’ve driven through the park that’s not mowed the way it used to be, we’ve looked at a new piece of property over there that hasn’t been touched yet.”

Earlier this session, Senate Republicans pushed through a bill that would have limited the ability of the state government to acquire more public land, but that bill died in the House.

SF 558 also drastically cut funding for the water quality measurement program run by the University of Iowa’s Iowa Flood Center. A third of the program’s current budget is reallocated to the state department of agriculture in the bill.

“The water quality measurement program will be reduced and could be axed altogether,” Iowa City Sen. Janice Weiner, a Democrat, said during the floor debate. “We know that water quality is a problem. We know that Iowans deserve better. But without data, it will be easy to say there’s no problem or we don’t know how to measure the problem.”

Zumbach said input from Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig influenced the decision to redirect the money to Naig’s department.

“What we do know is practices on the land and in our towns is what makes clear water,” the senator said. “And so when we made the decisions on how to appropriate dollars, it was all about let’s put [in place] practices that helped clean our water.”

Naig, a Republican, was first appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2018. He won his first election for his position later that year and was reelected in 2022. During his time in office, the quality of Iowa’s waterways has continued to decline.

The Senate approved SF 558 on a party-line vote, 33-16. It now goes to the Iowa House.