Iowa Capital

Iowa’s 2020 legislative session starts Jan. 13, with water quality and mental health funding among possible moves.

DES MOINES — There is no one obvious priority for farm organizations as they look toward the 2020 Iowa legislative session, but water quality and mental health funding are among the topics of discussion.

In the weeks leading up to the Jan. 13 start of the session, Gov. Kim Reynolds and legislative leaders have not announced any major proposals. Most of the attention has instead been focused on national issues such as impeachment, ethanol rules or trade.

But there are several issues percolating below the surface which might come up during the session.

Water quality, as has often been the case in recent years, is one of those items.

“One of the primary things we’re looking at is the clean water issue,” says Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union. “We’ve long been a supporter of Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy.”

That idea, known as IWILL, refers to a 2010 vote by the public that if Iowa’s sales tax is increased, the first 3/8 cent of that increase would go toward a fund aimed at the state’s water and natural resources. Lawmakers have not increased the sales tax since then, so the idea has not been funded.

Two years ago, lawmakers passed Senate File 512, which did provide a funding stream for water issues, although that funding stream is significantly smaller than the sales tax idea. When SF512 was passed, lawmakers said it would not be the end of the discussion.

Also on the water front, members of the Conservation Districts of Iowa voted recently to support 30-foot mandatory buffer strips along Iowa streams. Minnesota passed a similar law last year. But the state’s soil conservation and water quality committee on Dec. 12 rejected this among a batch of other resolutions.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig has said that while he supports the installation of buffer strips, he does not support making them mandatory, and the idea would likely face opposition in the Republican-dominated legislature.

Leaders of the Iowa Environmental Council are supportive of both IWILL and mandatory buffer strips, but say part of any discussion of IWILL would involve whether changes end up being made to the sales tax money distribution formula.

Environmental leaders are also concerned a bill that failed last year might make a return. That proposal would have made it more expensive for farmers and homeowners who want to install solar panels. The Iowa Pork Producers Association joined with environmental groups in defeating that proposal in 2019.

Kerri Johannsen with the Iowa Environmental Council says it is possible lawmakers could take a look at siting issues regarding wind turbines. Several counties, including Madison County, have developed local ordinances regarding wind installations, and it is possible the state could step in to settle the issue.

Not all of the big issues for 2020 are environmental. Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill says mental health funding may well be the top priority.

“Mental health funding is essential,” Hill says.

Iowa, he adds, doesn’t do a very good job of funding mental health care, and much of that funding comes from property taxes, which is unfair to farmers who end up paying about three times as much for the mental health system in the state as do urban residents.

Hill says he would like to see the legislature provide more state funds for mental health care that would both improve the level of care and also provide property tax relief.

“That will be our No. 1 issue this year,” he says. “We need to just fix this.”

Of course, it is possible lawmakers will merge some of those issues, using something like a sales tax increase to fund IWILL and mental health while reducing property taxes or some other taxes.

Hill says another issue of some interest is whether the state can do something to address the shortage of large animal veterinarians in rural areas.

“We just don’t have enough veterinarians,” he says.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.