Iowa voters may be asked in 2011 to approve a hike in the state sales tax to finance state conservation and recreation programs. State gas taxes are funneled into a special account which may only be used for road construction and maintenance, and the idea is to pass an amendment to Iowa’s constitution and funnel the new sales tax money into another account — exclusively for environmental programs.
Al Farris of the Iowa Conservation Alliance is a retired Department of Natural Resources employee who served as administrator of the agency’s fish and wildlife division. "My perception is that a lot of individuals — voters, taxpayers, whatever you want to call them, citizens of the state — are extremely concerned about water quality," Farris says. "They’re extremely concerned about parks, and fish and wildlife habitat, and conservation of agricultural soils, but that doesn’t seem to get translated into to long term money for those activities."
The proposal Farris supports would take three-eights of a cent of any future sales tax increase and place the estimated $150 million that would raise in a special fund for parks, trails, wildlife habitat and soil conservation. Farris says amending the state constitution is a lengthy process, though. "You have to get something passed through two different sessions of the legislature to even get it to a vote a people," Farris says. "Then you have to have the people vote on it and hopefully approve it. Then that sets up the mechanism that if there is ever another sales tax increase, it happens."
The proposal was approved by the 2008 legislature and appears to be on the fast track at the statehouse this year as a bill has already cleared committees in both the House and Senate. But the proposal has critics. Representative Mary Mascher, a Democrat from Iowa City, voted against the idea last year because she opposes "messing" with Iowa’s constitution. "It’s one of the least amended documents of all state constitutions in the country. I think there’s a reason for that," Mascher says. "I think Iowans believe in their heart of hearts that that isn’t a document you tinker with every session, every time you turn around, that our fore fathers and fore mothers made it difficult for a reason."
Mascher warns that if the proposal is successful, other groups will step forward to try to convince voters to set aside other tax revenue for their own pet projects.