Lt. Governor Reynolds, Governor Terry Branstad and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. (seated L-R)

Lt. Governor Reynolds, Governor Terry Branstad and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. (seated L-R)

Republican Governor Terry Branstad and former Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack — the U.S. Ag Secretary — joined forces today to tout a plan that would extend the one-cent sales tax that’s currently spent on school infrastructure projects and use most of the inflationary growth to finance water quality projects.

“This is the biggest and boldest initiative that I’ve probably put together in all my years as governor,” Branstad said late this morning.

The one-cent sales tax for schools is set to expire in 2029. Branstad’s plan would extend it to 2049. Schools would get the first big chunk of those sales tax collections, but the growth expected in the future would go to help farmers implement conservative measures that reduce farm chemical runoff. Vilsack called it a “substantial investment” that will improve water quality.

“The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit brought attention and focus to this issue, but I suspect that all of us believe that the ultimate resolution of our water quality issues ought not to be in a courtroom,” Vilsack said. “It ought to be in a collaborative and cooperative effort…That’s why I’m here today because I believe in that approach.”

Vilsack and Branstad appeared together at an annual legislative seminar organized by the Associated Press.

“We’re not of the same party, but we both care deeply about the state of Iowa and its future,” Branstad said, “and feel that this approach has potential to make a real difference.”

Legislative leaders say water quality initiatives are a priority, but lawmakers from both parties are a bit cool to Branstad’s idea. House Speaker-select Linda Upmeyer, a Republican from Clear Lake, said lawmakers will review the governor’s idea and “see if it has merit.”

“We don’t know the details of the proposal at this point,” Upmeyer said at the AP seminar.

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs expressed “significant reservations” about the proposal.

“I was actually hopeful after last summer’s vetoes of spending for education that the governor had run out of ideas on how to undercut our local schools,” Gronstal said.

Branstad took “full responsibility” for not giving legislators a heads-up about his proposal and Vilsack offered to try to get his fellow Democrats on board.

This issue needs to transcend partisanship,” Vilsack said. “It needs to transcend the normal tensions between governors and legislators because it’s so important to every single Iowan.”

According to Branstad, there’s no appetite for raising taxes to find money to resolve water quality issues, so extending an already existing tax seems the best alternative.

“We’re trying to do something big and bold,” Branstad said. “but we’re trying to do it in a way that really unites the state and does something really great for education, does something really great for water quality and doesn’t leave us vulnerable to something that’s really going to destroy the economic engine that creates wealth in this state and that’s agriculture.”

The Des Moines Water Works has sued officials in three northwest Iowa counties for failing to control “the discharge of pollutants.” Officials at the state’s largest water utility say they had to run their nitrate removal system for a record 177 days last year.