DES MOINES — Bruce Bearinger has a basic view of how the Iowa legislature works. He said that perhaps 80% of what is passed is bipartisan and would be done no matter which party was in power.
Another 5 or 10% is somewhat bipartisan but is impacted by which party is in power. Only about 10% is deeply partisan and controversial.
“That’s true of every session,” said Bearinger, a state representative from Oelwein and the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
This year’s session, which ended April 27, included more than a few of those controversial items, but Bearinger said most of the items related to agriculture were bipartisan and favorable to farmers.
The list of items of importance to farmers include changes to the state’s beginning farmer tax credit, some funding for water quality projects, an industrial hemp bill, a continuation of funding for ethanol infrastructure, money for animal disease control and an agricultural trespass bill.
Farmers were also some of the key opponents to a solar fee bill that failed.
House Agriculture Committee Chair Ross Paustian, R-Walcott, said the beginning farmer tax credit bill, the ag trespass bill and the hemp bill top the list of important items for agriculture.
The state’s beginning farmer loan program has existed for many years. In 2013, the beginning farmer tax credit program was expanded, and part of that legislation raised the program cap to $12 million.
The 2013 legislation was allowed to sunset at the end of 2017 and the cap reverted to $6 million, forcing program administrators to stop taking new loans last year.
The legislature failed to get new legislation passed in 2018, but a bill raising the cap back to $12 million was passed this spring. That legislation was supported by virtually every agricultural organization in the state.
When lawmakers approved SF 512 in early 2018, agricultural leaders described it as a good start but not a solution to water quality funding in the state. Existing water quality funding levels were preserved, and 512 will provide several million more dollars next year, but no major push was made in 2019 to expand the effort.
“We were disappointed there continues to be a lack of movement on IWILL (a program approved by state voters in a 2010 referendum that said the first 3⁄8-cent of any sales tax increase would go toward a natural resources fund),” said Cindy Lane, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.
Some agricultural leaders and legislators argued that the state needs to allow 512 to be phased in before pumping more money into the effort.
Kerri Johannsen, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said 512 offers a fraction of the funding necessary to help farmers deal with the problem.
A bill passed in 2012 often referred to as the “ag gag” law was challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional by a judge in January. Lawmakers worked to craft a new and narrower version of that legislation this session.
SF 519 said that someone is guilty of agricultural production facility trespass if they use deception with the intent to cause physical or economic harm to a facility or animals or the owner.
The bill has already been signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and a challenge has already been filed in court, but agricultural groups say they expect this version of the law to withstand a legal challenge.
“That was a big win for us,” said Drew Mogler, public policy director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
When the U.S. Congress passed the 2018 farm bill it included language that would allow states to legalize industrial hemp production under certain guidelines. As a result, multiple states have either passed or are considering industrial hemp legislation this spring.
SF 599 would give the Iowa Department of Agriculture regulatory authority over hemp production in Iowa. This would not legalize cannabis — a classification that includes hemp and its botanical cousin marijuana — above 0.3% THC.
“The 2018 farm bill opened the door for commercial hemp production,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. “We’ve collaborated with other state agencies as well as law enforcement officials to prepare for the potential deregulation of hemp in Iowa. We advise growers to do their research to be sure there is a viable, profitable market for commercial hemp before they make the investment.”
The Iowa Department of Agriculture was given an additional $250,000 for dealing with animal disease preparedness.
The state also approved $4.4 million, an increase of $300,000, for ongoing funding for the state veterinary diagnostic lab in Ames. The funding for the state livestock health advisory council was also approved. All of those items had the backing of livestock groups in the state.
The state’s renewable fuels infrastructure program was fully funded at $3 million, the same total as last year. That money goes to provide cost-share dollars for retailers who choose to install flex fuel pumps or other infrastructure for E15, E85 or biodiesel fuels.
There were several items related to property taxes that were passed in 2019, some of which were not controversial and others which garnered much debate. Not facing much controversy was the extension of the SAVE sales tax for school infrastructure.
That was due to expire in 2029, said Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill. Extending it now allows schools to better plan for the future, especially in regards to items such as bond issues, he said.
Other bills brought more controversy. A bill aimed specifically at use of a state revolving fund by private entities for land purchases for conservation did pass. That bill was supported by the Farm Bureau, but leaders of the Environmental Council describe it as a “solution in search of a problem.”
At the end of the session, lawmakers also passed a bill limiting increases in property taxes to 2% unless a public hearing is held. Opponents argue that the bill was a case of micro-managing of local governments by the state and say it could lead to pressure on the state’s IPERS retirement program for public employees.
Some power companies pushed lawmakers to approve a bill that would have implemented fees for companies or individuals who put up their own solar panels.
When the biofuel industry complained that many ethanol and biodiesel production facilities used solar panels, a change was made to satisfy them. But many livestock producers also install solar panels to help power hog buildings and other facilities, according to the IPPA’s Mogler. Opposition from a united front of pork producers and environmental groups was key in defeating that legislation.
“There was a groundswell of opposition to that,” said Johannsen with the Iowa Environmental Council.