Lawmakers investment in environmental protection shows improvement in 2012

The 2012 legislative session has ended, and the results this year are generally positive, especially in light of the significant cuts legislators made to environmental programs during the recent economic downturn. As this summary explains, lawmakers this year took several important steps to stabilize Iowa’s investment in the state’s natural resources.  Several of these bills still require the governor’s signature to become law, and all of these issues could be up for debate again next year with a new legislature.

The progress reported here would not be possible without the hard work of the Council’s member organizations and individual supporters across Iowa who are too numerous to thank individually.  We sincerely appreciate the work of many people on these issues.

During the session, the Iowa Environmental Council tracked just under 300 separate pieces of legislation.  From that list, here are some of the most significant outcomes:

Clean energy in Iowa

Legislative action met or exceeded the Council’s expectations

Nuclear power:  The Council opposed legislation (HF 561) to shift the costs and risks of a new nuclear power plant in Iowa to electric ratepayers, potentially refocusing energy development in Iowa away from truly renewable options like wind and solar.  A version of the bill passed the House last year and passed the Senate Commerce Committee on an 8-7 vote this year, but the measure did not advance to the full Senate and was not adopted.  Thank you to the Council’s action alert volunteers who spoke out on this issue!

Solar tax credits:  This year and last year, the Council advocated for new solar energy tax credits to support the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems by homeowners and small businesses.  This year, the legislature passed a tax credit program offering up to $1.5 million in incentives each year to supplement an existing federal tax credit for solar PV.  The new program will support expansion of smaller-scale solar installations in Iowa, a limited but important step toward increasing use of Iowa’s vast solar energy potential.

Progress was made, but more is needed

Wind tax credits:  Last year, lawmakers agreed to extend for three years the eligibility period for Iowa’s 476C wind energy production tax credit. This change allowed the many eligible wind projects that are not yet operational more time to get turbines in the ground. However, there is still a waiting list and more tax credits are needed. This year, SF 2326 would have increased available tax credits from 2015 to 2020 and set aside some credits for Iowa’s new Small Wind Innovation Zones. The bill passed the Senate but not the House.

Legislative action was lacking or counterproductive

Wind goals and incentive rates: The Council supported two key pieces of energy legislation that did not advance. One would have set long term wind energy goals for Iowa at 10,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020 and 20,000 MW by 2030-realistic wind energy goals offering significant environmental and economic benefits. The second bill would have created renewable energy incentive rates so farmers, homeowners, and small businesses would receive a fair price for clean energy they produce.

Water and land stewardship

Legislative action met or exceeded the Council’s expectations

Public land limits:  The House considered measures to sell publicly owned land to fund conservation programs, and, later, a provision to inventory public land for possible future sale.    These actions would imperil Iowa’s ability to permanently establish conservation and habitat areas where they are needed; the proposals drew criticism from a broad cross section of Iowans and did not pass. Thank you to the Council’s action alert volunteers who spoke out on this issue!

Lake restoration:  The Department of Natural Resources prioritizes and completes projects to restore Iowa’s public lakes, focusing on reducing sedimentation and phosphorous levels that cause algae blooms.  The legislature appropriated $6 million to this program, up from about $5.5 million last year. Thank you to the Council’s action alert volunteers who spoke out on this issue!

River restoration:  Last year, the legislature appropriated only $75,000 to develop water trails and remove dangerous low-head dams on Iowa rivers, which the Governor later vetoed.  This year, the legislature appropriated $1 million to these projects. Thank you to the Council’s action alert volunteers who spoke out on this issue!

Closure of agricultural drainage wells:  The legislature appropriated $1.5 million to close these wells which pollute groundwater, a significant improvement from last year when no funds were appropriated.

Forest reserve program: The Council and partners successfully opposed proposed changes to the Forest and Fruit Tree Reservation Tax Exemption, protecting conservation benefits these areas provide.

Progress was made, but more is needed

REAP:  The Resource Protection and Enhancement Program has never been fully funded at its authorized level, currently $20 million.  Next year’s budget provides REAP $12 million—unchanged from this year.

Funding for state agencies:  An issue of concern every year is whether the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship receive adequate funding to carry out their missions.  The legislature approved small increases in funding for both agencies, but general fund support for the Department of Natural Resources is still down almost one-third since 2009.

Watershed improvement funding:  The Watershed Improvement Review Board (WIRB) funds local projects to address water quality problems.  After several years of $5 million in annual funding, WIRB received no funds for grants this year and had allocated all available funds.  The Council and partners pushed hard to restore the flow of funds and lawmakers agreed, appropriating $1 million toward new projects—an improvement, but far short of needed investment. Thank you to the Council’s action alert volunteers who spoke out on this issue!

Legislative action was lacking or counterproductive

Lake Delhi:  The legislature appropriated $5 million over two years to build a dam on the Maquoketa River to re-create Lake Delhi which the Council opposed because these funds could be better spent supporting Iowa’s public lake restoration program, and serious questions remain about possible future state support for dredging.   The legislature included restrictions compelling local supporters to address inadequate treatment of sewage from residential septic systems and increase public access to the lake.

Just as a reminder…

Next year, the legislative session begins with a clean slate.  After elections in November, a new Iowa House and Senate will convene as the 85th General Assembly on January 14, 2013.  The Council’s  2013 legislative day at the statehouse will take place Tuesday, February 26.

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