Accusations of political payback in a contentious battle over water quality and local control in Iowa. It's a familiar issue and we'll cover it all on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, March 24 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: The Iowa legislature is no stranger to water debates and so-called local control issues. But the Des Moines Water Works fired a new salvo into the conversation two years ago, filing suit in federal court in against counties in northwest Iowa blaming them for lax oversight of agricultural runoff. Governor Branstad said Des Moines was declaring war on rural Iowa. Now, while the lawsuit was dismissed in federal court this week, republican Iowa lawmakers are actively pursuing legislation that would dismantle current oversight of the Des Moines Water Works. Democrats have called the bill a classic example of political payback from a part that has long prided itself on a battle cry of local control. Here to talk about it with us are State Representative Chip Baltimore, a Boone republican, and democratic State Representative Chris Hall of Sioux City is in opposition to current Water Works legislation. Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us today. We appreciate you taking time to be here.

Thank you for having us.

Yepsen: Also joining us across the table, James Lynch is political reporter for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Representative Baltimore, there are two big water-related bills on the House agenda. One is the aforementioned bill about the Des Moines Water Works. The other is a bill that you're the floor manager of that would provide more money over a period of years to water initiatives around the state. Which one of those is more likely to become law?

Baltimore: If I had to guess I would say the second one, I think the one that is actually going to put in place a financing structure to help collaborative, local watershed based water quality projects. I think that one has got more momentum behind it at this point in time and is a much more positive view for the overall state of Iowa.

Henderson: So has the other bill drowned yet?

Baltimore: I don't know whether or not that is going to survive and float or sink.

Henderson: Representative Hall, do you have an opinion as to which might become law sooner or if at all?

Hall: Well, I think the bill addressing water quality funding is one that both parties, democrat and republican, have an interest in talking about. The other bill related to the Des Moines Water Works and the dissolution of these independent water boards, I'm very hopeful that it does die in the next week or so because of legislative procedural deadlines. It's something that is, of course, very ill-informed and I think would actually do a lot to go against what public opinion in Central Iowa believes is the right decision.

Lynch: Yesterday republican leaders in the House said that they're still working on the Des Moines Water Works bill, they're perfecting it. What is the status of that bill? Is it dead now that the federal lawsuit has been thrown out? Is it just tabled indefinitely? It seems like the big stick, the threat of the EPA coming in and telling Iowa to clean up its water, doesn't exist anymore under the Trump administration. So are we going to see that bill come to the floor?

Baltimore: I don't know the answer to that. And we're having a lot of conversations about whether we should bring it forward in its current form, whether we need to change it and if it's something that still has enough support from the people that really wanted it to help us carry it forward if that's the decision to be made.

Henderson: So what impact did the lawsuit getting thrown out have on this debate?

Baltimore: I don't know that it really had any. The genesis from everything that I heard over the last couple of years was really coming from people that lived within the region that is served by the Des Moines Water Works utility, how they wanted more say in their control and the governance of that entity. That was the biggest incentive that I had heard as far as why that bill was brought about in the first place.

Yepsen: Was it payback?

Baltimore: Not from what I understood.

Henderson: Representative Hall?

Hall: I think the optics of the bill speak volumes. When you look at the way the bill was introduced, it came through the House Agriculture Committee, it is being floor managed by a Representative who lives nowhere near to Central Iowa and probably has had distant contact if contact with anybody from Central Iowa about their water rates or the safety of their drinking water. When you look at the optics of the bill I think that it comes off as retaliatory. It seems as though it is something that was provoked by the lawsuit and it is really aimed purely at trying to take a shot back at the Des Moines Water Works in a way that inserts politics into the process which most Iowans would disagree is a good idea. Inserting politics into something that is more than anything a public safety and public health issues, clean, safe drinking water and also affordable drinking water for people here in Central Iowa, inserting politics into that doesn't do any good and I think that's why you're also seeing the bill stall out. Legislators from Central Iowa have overwhelmingly heard from their constituents that they don't want to see this bill move forward.

Yepsen: Representative Baltimore, how do you react to that?

Baltimore: Well, I think the Des Moines City Council vote this past week, they voted 4 to 2 in favor of the legislation, speaks volumes as well. They have a direct incentive and motivation to take action. They're obviously unhappy and they're hearing from their citizens as well about why they want to do something about this and that is where the legislation generated. So I think that speaks as much to anything about why this legislation came forward in the first place.

Hall: At the same time though you had the City Council in West Des Moines vote to oppose the legislation. You've seen recent public polling that shows that 68% of Central Iowans, including a majority of republican, democrat and independent voters, all say that they don't believe inserting politics into an independent water board is the right decision. Independent water boards exist because this is a public health issue. You don’t want politics intervening when the main goal is to keep water rates low and the main goal is to provide safe, affordable drinking water to citizens.

Lynch: Is there a political risk here for Polk County and the surrounding county republicans to vote for this bill, Chip?

Baltimore: There may be to the extent that people are not in favor of the legislation. That's possible, but that's true of pretty much any bill that we do there. If it generates enough opposition then it becomes a political thing. This is something that was brought forward at the request of people that wanted more control over that utility. So they are speaking volumes, the West Des Moines City Council did not vote to oppose the legislation, they voted to go neutral on that instead. So I think that is something where they're just trying to step back and say, okay, we're going to take no position on it. But I think from the region's perspective there is a lot of incentive and indication of interest that this is something they'd like to have some say over the governance of that utility.

Yepsen: Back up for a minute, this is a very complicated issue, it's hard for a lot of people to understand. Representative Hall, first you, why is this important to your constituents in Sioux City? Does this have any meaning at all in Boone? Who cares outside of Des Moines?

Hall: Well, it goes back to your earlier comment about local control. Local control, whether it's from municipal government or an independent utility and water utility in this case, they exist across the state, they exist in probably my district as well as Representative Baltimore’s and if the legislature intervenes only when it disagrees with the way that a certain utility or municipal government is acting that is the wrong thing to do. You can't just intervene and expect that state policy will be based on and made when it's in disagreement with the way that local elected officials have chosen to move forward.

Yepsen: Do you agree with that?

Baltimore: I agree with the concept of local control but that's exactly what this bill aims to do as well. The people that are served by the Des Moines Water Works are not just the residents of the city of Des Moines, it's a regional water works utility in terms of the number of people that they serve. And what we have heard is that people that do not live within the city limits of the city of Des Moines but live in some of the suburbs and the surrounding areas would like some say in how that utility is run because it does impact their water rates and the clean water that they want to have to drink.

Yepsen: Why should they have any say over it? They're customers, they buy their water from the Des Moines Water Works, the Des Moines Water Works was built by the ratepayers in Des Moines. Why should somebody who is buying water all of a sudden have a say in how the Water Works is run?

Baltimore: Because we're seeing more regionalization, especially around this area with regards to the serving of the public with the water supply.

Henderson: One of the reasons that republicans have said you're doing this bill is because of the benefits of regionalization, it reduces costs. Why start with the Water Works? Why not start with 99 counties? That seems to cost property taxpayers far more than it does to get a glass of water.

Baltimore: Well, I would think that if this is a situation that is relatively isolated, if that politically is too heavy of a lift than trying to take 99 counties and do something major as far as reorganizing them, would certainly be probably far too heavy for the legislature to lift at that point.

Hall: I'll just jump in and also add, if regionalization and creating a regional drinking water system was truly the goal, that is something these municipal governments can already pursue with existing state code. If Des Moines and its surrounding communities felt that it was an eventual goal to create a regional water system, that already is allowed in state code, they can create 28 e-agreements with each other, it's something that they can pursue without the legislature intervening and removing local control. The only thing that this bill does is take a voice away from the constituents and people who live in Central Iowa who would have to be sought out and there would be a popular referendum if these local governments actually wanted to regionalize. They would have to go to the people, they would have to have a referendum and the people would have an opportunity to approve it. This bill though dissolves independent water boards and removes the opportunity for the public to have a voice and that goes against the public’s best interests.

Lynch: Let's talk about local control. It seems to be one of the overriding issues of this session. And so far we've seen the legislature pre-empt local decision making on whether you can take a gun into your public library, pre-empting minimum wage decisions, pre-empting the use of plastic bags. Representative Baltimore, are republicans being hypocritical about local control, which has been, as David said earlier, sort of a battle cry of republicans in the past?

Baltimore: I think local control is always important. However, we also have to understand that sometimes local decisions have a broader impact and there's a broader interest involved and that is where the state comes in. The whole concept that we have here constitutionally is set up legally is all of these entities are political subdivisions of the state.

Lynch: What is the broader impact of a plastic bag decision in any community?

Baltimore: I don't know so much about the plastic bags but I can certainly speak to minimum wage, for instance. That is a situation where we're trying to have business interests that aren't seeing, they're trying to make competing decisions in labor force areas when we think that the state as a whole is a much better entity or geographic area for us to make those kinds of decisions.

Lynch: Representative Hall, what is the broader impact of the Sioux City City Council saying we don't want guns in our public library?

Hall: Well, I would start with the basic point that local elected officials are probably more responsive to their communities than the state might be. If a city council, a school board, a county board of supervisors, makes a decision I would be willing to bet that they have a good sense of how their community feels about it. This is just time and time again this session examples of the republican legislature choosing to intervene when they disagree with decisions made at the local level. If there is a decision made that they do agree with, sure, it's a great shining example of local control. Bu when they do disagree with it, you can see on the minimum wage, you can see on courthouse safety or other issues, they're saying the legislature knows best and you shouldn't trust your local elected officials to make these decisions. And it's unfortunate.

Yepsen: How do you respond to that?

Baltimore: Well, I would respond with the vote we took earlier this week on home rule for schools, which we republicans thought was important for local control for local school boards to better, be better able to manage their affairs. Roundly disputed and rejected and opposed by democrats. So we can have that discussion all day long. But I think at a certain point in time I don't think either party necessarily gets to claim to be the champion of local control without some exceptions.

Hall: I would just say that I was one of the democrats that voted for that bill, it was a bipartisan vote, we believed that there was an opportunity to give local school boards that opportunity to have their say and do so without the state intervening. But you can't just pick and choose. If we're going to be champions of local control we should also do so consistently.

Yepsen: Mr. Baltimore, do you have a sense, I get the sense that the Water Works bill may not move forward. It sounds to me like you're saying there's a real possibility here at least that it doesn't. Do you think this debate has fostered around the state a discussion about the issue of regional water authorities? We haven't talked about that in Des Moines since 1993 when we all couldn't take a shower. Will it foster a good public debate around the state or have no impact at all?

Baltimore: I hope that it does, I hope that it fosters a debate because we need to look at what our water resources are and how do we best and most efficiently manage them and I think that is a discussion that is very important for people to have. And if there is a region that is best served by a regional utility perhaps that's a discussion that may foster that and make that happen.

Henderson: Well then let's shift to the discussion of the other bill, the water quality initiative that would dedicate more money, state resources, to efforts locally to improve water. There is a portion of that that hasn't gotten a lot of attention but the people who say it could bring millions of dollars into the state, the idea of sort of like a carbon credit system whereby people outside the state could pay a farmer to do some improvements on his land and get a credit for that. Is that going to stay part of the bill?

Baltimore: Well, we're having those discussions. It's a nutrient exchange is the portion of the bill that you're referencing and that is in there to generate the discussion to see if this is something that we can actually get accomplished here in the state. I think the biggest focus is to try to have, within the state of Iowa, have rural and urban communities and people working together. And so that's the concept, if you've got a point source, either a business or a city utility, that needs to make some investments upstream they can do that and this is a method of measuring that to make sure that they know that they're getting the proper amount of water quality benefit for the dollars that they would be spending upstream. I don't know that we're necessarily looking so much for out-of-state people to come in and make those investments, I think we're really trying to focus more on what is going on in the state of Iowa.

Yepsen: How long is it going to take before we see some progress on this nutrient issue? Okay, we've had this lawsuit, it's out of the way now, we've had a huge debate, now there's a debate on the Water Works. The average Iowan is sitting out there thinking, when will I have some assurance that my water is clean? Mr. Baltimore, you represent, you reflect the republican view here, when are we going to get serious in this state about trying to do something that means something?

Baltimore: I think this is a serious piece of legislation and part of this is we need to make sure that we're doing things the right way. There is still substantial disagreement about what exactly our problems are in this state and within each of the individual, I think there's 1,612 watersheds in the state, each watershed is different, each has its own separate water quality problem, if you will. So it's a challenge to sit here and say universally this is one problem that we have throughout the entire state and the solutions are equally as diverse. So this bill will put forth the structure to finance those collaborative projects between urban and rural areas within a watershed to allow them to get funding, define their own problem, figure out how to solve their own problem and at the same time do so in a very cost effective manner.

Henderson: Representative Hall, I'm struck covering meetings at which this bill is discussed that there seems to be less ferocity in opposition to it than legislation that was considered last year. Why is that?

Hall: Well, again, as I mentioned earlier, water quality is something that you see legislators on both sides of the aisle agreeing, we need to discuss this. It's a serious issue for the state both in terms of drinking water but also in terms of recreation and what happens downstream from Iowa. Democrats really believe that we need to talk about this and I think the proposal that Representative Baltimore is working on is a very creative approach to it. If I had to offer a critique of the bill though I think the issue is that it is not nearly robust enough. Right now there are over $1 billion of identified projects that would need to occur in order to correct Iowa's impaired waterways, over $1 billion that have been identified. And the robustness of funding that this bill would provide falls very short of addressing those things. It takes over a decade to build up enough resources to really make a dent in it and a decade from now we're going to be even deeper in trouble than we are at the present.

Lynch: Let's talk about sort of the scope of the problem, the cost. I think that's one thing both parties agree on is that this is expensive. Simple solution that voters approved was to raise the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent and put that money into a water trust fund. Democrats controlled the Senate last year, they didn’t take that up, republicans control all the parts this year, doesn't seem like they want to take that up. Representative Baltimore, are you likely to get behind the bill that has been introduced that would increase the sales tax three-eighths of a cent over a three year period offset by income tax, some income tax reform and make it revenue neutral but create this pool of money to clean up water?

Baltimore: I think it's important for us to do this in the right order and that's one of the things I think is most challenging with the concept that we should just go ahead and raise the sales tax now or even phase it in without having underlying structure on how we're going to coordinate these projects, how we're going to design them and how we're going to ultimately prioritize them to make sure that we're getting the most bang for our buck. So as I sit here and look at the future of water quality legislation, my preference would be to pass the structure that we're putting into place now with House File 538 that we've been working on and working through the Iowa House that creates the underlying structure that is collaborative in nature, focused on watershed based projects and then at some future point in time when we can actually make that structure sound and make it workable then we can come in and dovetail in the three-eighths of a cent money, which I believe would be about $105 million a year that would go towards water quality. If we put that into this system we can then turn around and leverage that to the point where we can have between $2 and $4 billion that's going to be there to work on that.

Yepsen: Representative Hall, how do you react to that?

Hall: Well, I can say that personally I support the increasing of the sales tax in order to fund the trust. That's something that is my personal position and I think many democrats agree with and support, maybe not universally. The reason why, and a large reason that I think we need to look at that is the first solution, is because it does have public support. It was approved by the voters of Iowa in 2010, it was created as a constitutional amendment after passing two General Assemblies. It is protected funding, that means the legislature can't scoop those dollars in a future year. And that is very important. We need to make sure that whatever constructive program is put in place to talk about water quality, it's something that is sustained in the future because this is going to continue to be an issue and it's going to continue to really need sustainable funding.

Yepsen: We've got some other political issues at the Statehouse.

Henderson: Representative Baltimore, you are the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Iowa House, that is the committee through which legislation regarding sentencing reform passed last year. It doesn't seem that there is as much discussion about the racial disparities in Iowa's prison system this year. Do you expect to advance legislation maybe next year that would change some sentencing laws?

Baltimore: We just passed this past week off the floor of the House another piece of sentencing reform, again dealing with mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. That was complementary to the bigger piece that we did last year. And the whole goal of both of these pieces is, number one, let's make sure that the people who are in prison really need to be there and the other one is for those that really don't need to be there because they are non-violent, maybe first time offenders, trying to get them into a rehabilitation system that is actually going to allow them to become productive members of society again. I think both of those pieces of legislation substantially went down that path of achieving that. Again, the end result of both of those pieces of legislation is for non-violent offenders, each offender is going to be treated more specifically for their own situation than just a blanket, universal, here's how much time you're spending in jail in that sense. So I'm very pleased that we were able to get both pieces of legislation done, certainly the one last year that is now into law, the one that we passed through the House I'm hoping that the Senate takes that up and gets that passed as well because I think the two of them complement each other very well to achieving those goals.

Lynch: Representative Hall, an issue that you've been involved in as a member of the Appropriations Committee is looking at tax credits. The state has about $427 million in tax credits and there's talk about capping that or ending refundability of some of those tax credits. Is this the right topic, wrong direction that republicans are taking? Or are you all marching together on this?

Hall: It's the right topic, it might not be a perfect bill in its current form though. The state, and I would say the bill acknowledges the fact that this state has had a runaway in expenses associated with tax credits. Many of the state's tax credits are currently uncapped, they are also automatic, which means that so long as somebody qualifies for them the state's costs continue to grow. During my time in the legislature we've seen tax credits increase as a cost to the state by over $100 million and they're happening at a rate that the legislature currently doesn't really have a whole lot of oversight over or we don't have direct approval over. So we certainly do need to reign in the state's tax credits because it has become unsustainable. In a budget year like this you've seen cuts made to community colleges, state Regents universities, public safety and law enforcement, at the same time that tax credits for large companies, many of whom don't actually even pay income tax in this state, they're being held harmless. And that strikes Iowans very correctly as the wrong direction.

Henderson: The clock is nearly striking out on this show. We have 30 seconds left. Representative Hall, would you ever run for Congress?

Hall: I've had some encouragement, especially with Representative King's current, or I guess his recent comments. That's not something I'm planning to do at this time.

Henderson: Representative Baltimore, do you plan to be a state representative your whole life?

Baltimore: Probably not my whole life, I have no idea how long this will last.

Henderson: What would you like to do next?

Baltimore: We're always looking at opportunities.

Henderson: And what opportunity do you see?

Baltimore: We're always looking. You never know what the world is going to present you with.

Yepsen: Well, and I'm always looking at the clock and we're out of time, gentlemen. Thanks for taking your time to be with us here today, we appreciate that.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll return with another edition of Iowa Press next week with Former Iowa Governor and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at noon on our main Iowa PBS channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World Channel Saturday morning at 8:30a.m. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. The availability of high speed broadband service is essential to fulfilling the promise of a connected Iowa. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign showcases the importance of delivering broadband to all corners of Iowa. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. UIeCare is helping provide access to health care services to more Iowans. By offering online visits with a University of Iowa health care provider, UIeCare helps Iowans seek medical care without leaving home. Learn more at UIeCare.com. 

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