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Longtime Iowa state senator pushes for conservation fund

OCHEYEDAN, Iowa — Longtime District 1 State Senator David Johnson made national headlines in June 2016 when he suspended his Republican Party membership in protest of Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee at the time.

However, Johnson was also at odds with Republicans in his own state on some issues, namely the environment.

In 2010, Iowa voters amended the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund to the state constitution with 63 percent of the vote. It established a three-eighths of a penny increase in the state sales tax to generate revenue for environmental, conservation and recreational projects.

However, Iowa laws dictate that lawmakers must raise the sales tax through a bill. Despite annual proposals from Johnson, the legislature never approved the sales tax.

“Every constitution you pick up has the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund included in it, and yet that fund doesn’t have a single penny,” Johnson said. “That vote should be respected — that's the will of the people.”

Johnson said Iowa was the second biggest contributor of farm and urban runoff that flows into the Mississippi River. The runoff from states near the river flows down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a 6,000-to-7,000 mile dead zone that begins at the Mississippi River delta and extends westward to the upper Texas coast. Nitrogen, phosphorous and various pollutants create algal blooms, which deplete oxygen and kill life.

“I am not proud of Iowa being the number two contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where entire fishing industries have been destroyed,” Johnson said. “It’s too bad we can’t assume our responsibility for affecting the environment all the way down the Mississippi River.”

Johnson praised conservation sales tax funds in Minnesota and Missouri as a model for how Iowa could protect its natural resources.

In Minnesota, 33 percent of a three-eighths of one percent sales tax go to the clean water fund. Another 33 percent go to the outdoor heritage fund, and 14.25 percent are designated for the parks and trails fund.

Missouri has the Parks, Soils and Water sales tax, a one-tenth of one percent tax that funds state parks and soil conservation efforts. Prior to the passage of the sales tax in 1984, Missouri had the second highest rate of erosion in the nation.

“The people in Missouri have been renewing the sales tax every 10 years,” Johnson said. “Because they know it’s doing good.”

This year, Johnson has introduced the bill once again. Although Republican lawmakers have said they do not want to raise taxes. Johnson said he will make every legislative effort he can to try to get a vote on the bill, but it won’t go anywhere without public outcry.

“I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel until the people see it,” Johnson said. “They need to rally around this and really put pressure on legislators.”

Although Johnson said Democrats’ views are more aligned with his on the issue, he will not caucus with them.

“I still consider myself to be a conservative no matter what anyone else says,” Johnson said. “To me, being a conservative to me also means being a conservationist. It’s time to take care the few natural areas we have left … we only get one chance at this.”

In June, Johnson criticized Trump over his comments that federal Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, presiding over the Trump University case, was biased because of his Mexican heritage. Despite his opposition to Trump, Johnson said he would be watching the President-elect’s inauguration Friday.

“It is history — it is the way we pass on the transition of power,” he said. “I’m very interested to see what he says in his address.”