It was a shutdown miracle.
Just about a month ago, I urged the Iowa Legislature to break its tradition of broken promises when it comes to the Resource Enhancement And Protection program, or REAP. The fund for a wide array of outdoor recreation and natural resource protection efforts was created 25 years ago, but since then, lawmakers have failed to fork over the full $20 million annual pot called for in the law.
A broad coalition of environmental groups and others asked lawmakers to spend $25 million on REAP next fiscal year in honor of its 25th anniversary. The Iowa Senate was on board. But the Iowa House had other plans, including earmarking REAP funds for other programs and projects.
“So, now, REAP will be tossed into the late-session scrum over dueling budget bills,” I wrote on April 15. “Lord knows what will emerge. Happy anniversary.”
But unlike so many legislative session shutdowns, when our bleary-eyed leaders have been known to pull the legislative equivalent of lampshade-wearing, this story has a happy ending. When lawmakers departed for home, they left $25 million for REAP.
It took some conference committee horse-trading. Senators wanted more spending than the House for several soil and water protection programs. In the end, they found that they could agree on more bucks for REAP, which includes dollars for local soil and water conservation efforts. Funding next year includes $16 million from the Environment First Fund, $4 million from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, made up mostly of gambling taxes, and $5 million in “one-time” money tacked onto the last budget bill approved before adjournment. And no earmarks in REAP.
“There was no way in hell I as chair was going to allow the earmarking of REAP,” said Sen. Dennis Black, D-Lynnville, chair of a Senate budget panel overseeing agriculture and natural resources funding. He’s leaving the Legislature after 32 years, fighting to protect Iowa’s environment from day one.
“To me it’s almost a sacred formula. Once you start earmarking a single penny, then Katy bar the door. Because REAP would become the deep-pocketed sugar daddy for every provincial initiative that any legislator might have.”
Under that formula, 20 percent goes to soil and water conservation districts, 20 percent goes to county conservation boards, 15 percent is spent on open space projects in cities and 28 percent is for state open-space projects. State land management gets a 9 percent slice, “historical resources,” such as local museums, get 5 percent and 3 percent is spent on roadside vegetation.
Decisions on how best to spend much of that money are made locally. If you’ve crossed the Mary Lundby Bridge at Pinicon Ridge Park, hiked down the Boyson Trail or Krumholtz Trail in Marion, or have gazed upon the historic, restored Grant Wood stained glass window in Cedar Rapids’ Veterans Memorial Building, you’ve experienced REAP.
Cedar Rapids, over the years, has used REAP to acquire woodlands, add to Ellis Park and restore the Cedar River’s bank at the site of the McGrath Amphitheater. Linn County, during the 1990s, received multiple grants for the Cedar River greenbelt, while also receiving help with the development of the Wickiup Hill Outdoor Learning Center. Local museums and historic sites have received $424,000 from REAP since 1990. REAP helped repair the fishing pier at Pleasant Creek Lake, conserved flood-damaged documents at the African American Museum of Iowa and supported the work of Trees Forever.
“It’s definitely something our department will be very interested in,” said Cedar Rapids Parks Superintendent Daniel Gibbons of the REAP funding boost. “That’s pretty exciting if the governor actually signs that.”
Oh, yeah, the governor. Gov. Terry Branstad can sign this REAP funding into law. Or, he can use his line-item veto to dismantle a welcome, hard-won bipartisan compromise. “I don’t think that would be very smart for him to do,” Black said.
I agree. With his re-election looming and polls apparently tightening, I don’t think vetoing REAP funding would be politically wise, or even fiscally necessary.
So I’m betting Branstad will sign on. But next legislative session? We may go back to broken promises.
And that’s the norm, unfortunately. Black says Iowa’s commitment to protecting its vital resources has wavered over the last decade or so. Only a very small slice of Iowa’s $6.9 billion state general fund budget, less than 1 percent according to Black, is being spent on protecting soil and water.
“I leave the Legislature very disappointed in that regard,” Black said. “Because you just can’t continue to do it. I guarantee it will come back to haunt us. The cost in the future will be very significant if we don’t wise up and start saving the soil and protecting our waters.
“It’s certainly something I’ll be concerned about until the day I cash in my chips.”
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