David Osterberg

David Osterberg

A former state legislator in the 1980s and ’90s who worked on environmental issues is suggesting current lawmakers should impose the state sales tax on farm chemicals.

“I’m taxed if I go down to my Ace Hardware and buy some 10-10-10 fertilizer to put in my garden, but if you buy tons of it, you don’t pay any tax,” says David Osterberg, a University of Iowa professor who represented Mount Vernon in the Iowa House for a dozen years.

Osterberg is the founder of an Iowa City-based think tank that recently issued a report that concluded the voluntary approach to reducing farm chemical run-off isn’t working in Iowa.

“The ag community ought to be doing a whole lot more than they are,” Osterberg says. “Cost-share is good, but I think that we ought to get some of the funds for that cost-share program from a tax on fertilizer.”

Billions in state and federal tax dollars have been dedicated to on-the-farm projects that prevent both soil and farm chemical run-off. Other groups are lobbying legislators to raise the state sales tax by a fraction, to finance water quality and outdoor recreation projects. Republican House Speaker Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake says taxing farm chemicals or raising the state sales tax for all purchases won’t happen in a Republican-led legislature.

“I have not heard any conversation about increasing a tax,” Upmeyer says.

Upmeyer suggests there are ways to redirect already-existing taxes toward water quality initiatives.

“It’s a topic that’s important for Iowans. We’ll continue to look at that. We’ll have a variety of ideas moving forward,” Upmeyer says.

Upmeyer says there may be more federal tax dollars available for farmland conservation projects. And she says the state is already spending about $300 million on water quality activities.

Republicans will control the debate agenda in both the House and Senate in 2017.  Osterberg, a Democrat who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, served in the Iowa House from January of 1983 until January of 1995.