ISU ag center, Iowa Flood Center on budget chopping block

Published: Apr. 11, 2017 at 5:03 PM CDT
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A longtime Iowa research center for sustainable agriculture is on the chopping block in the Republican-controlled Legislature alongside funding for a research center that studies flood prevention, and a key lawmaker said Tuesday it's in part because their work is complete.

A GOP-led budget committee voted Tuesday for an education bill that includes cutting all state funding from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa.

GOP Rep. Cecil Dolecheck said the Leopold Center has educated farmers on best practices regarding sustainable agriculture, and any future research should be conducted through ISU. The university has had its funding reduced by millions in the current budget year.

"A lot of people felt that that mission for sustainable agriculture that they undertook, that they have completed that mission, it's pretty well done," he said.

Dolecheck added the flood center at UI was originally focused on conducting research linked to historic 2008 flooding in the state. He said the Legislature never anticipated that funding would be long-term. He said while the flood center has utilized federal grants, "We as Iowans need to be responsible for our taxpayer dollars. What do we need from that flood center at this point in time to help Iowans?"

The cuts - nearly $400,000 for the Leopold Center and $1.5 million for the Iowa Flood Center - would effectively end their work, according to staff for both groups.

The Leopold Center, which is commemorating its 30th anniversary this year, does research on a range of issues including water quality, soil health and farm conservation practices. Lawmakers have been debating water quality legislation amid a lawsuit by a utility that challenged farm runoff in the drinking water supply. That lawsuit was recently dismissed. A bill to address water quality has not yet been approved this session.

Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center, said the state money is one of three sources of funding but its removal would hurt the others. He disputed Dolecheck's comment about the center.

"The job is not done," he said. "I disagree that everything is done and fine and we can all pack up and go home."

Larry J. Weber, a university professor who helps oversee the Iowa Flood Center, said the cut in state funding would jeopardize federal funding. He said the center helps local communities, pointing to their role in providing information to the city of Cedar Rapids when it responded to major flooding last year.

"They had more warning and more time to prepare," he said of the tools the center provided, adding: "We know that the flood center played a very positive role in mitigating that flood."

The proposals in the roughly $908 million education budget bill approved Tuesday will require more votes before being finalized. Lawmakers will need to approve several bills in the chambers to OK the overall roughly $7.2 billion budget expected to take effect in July. Republican leaders say cuts are needed amid lower-than-expected revenue, though Democrats say the budget woes are tied to bad spending practices over several years.

Dolecheck said it's possible that some funding for the flood center could be restored or be directed to UI, but he said it would impact something else in the budget.

Gov. Terry Branstad has publicly praised the Iowa Flood Center. Ben Hammes, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment on the proposed cuts.

"This is all part of the process," he said in an email. "We are working with the Legislature currently to provide a balanced budget for Iowa families and taxpayers."