Could a tax hike save Iowa's water quality?

In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works filed a federal lawsuit contending that drainage districts in three Iowa counties are polluting drinking water with nitrate runoff. A year later, little has been resolved and tensions remain high. Throw in a proposed tax hike, and the issue only gets more controversial.

That's what Gov. Terry Branstad proposed at a news briefing on May 2. He says he is willing to explore the possibility of enacting a three-eighths of one cent increase for the state's sales tax to generate around $180 million annually for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. About 60% of that money would be used to curb water pollution. The trust fund has been around since 2010 but has not been funded since that time.

"I don't think Iowans want to see their taxes increased, but we are going to be willing to look all kinds of things," Branstad said at Monday's briefing. "The three-eighths of a cent is something we would be willing to consider, but there are other ways to do it."

Branstad's consideration came after the Iowa Senate refused to debate a bill from the Iowa House that would have funded water quality projects for more than a decade, at a cost of $732 million. Some called the bill a "shell game" that moved money away from other state programs.

"Taking money from one priority - public schools - and giving it to another priority - water quality - was met with bipartisan opposition in the Senate and statewide opposition from education advocates," according to Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs). "Solving Iowa's challenging water quality problems will require a sincere, bipartisan approach."