Iowa Senate bill could block group from using state loans to buy land for conservation, flood efforts

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is at the center of a bill approved by the Iowa Senate Wednesday. It would block the organization and others like it from purchasing land with the intention to sell or donate it to government entities at a local, state, or federal level. (Aaron Scheinblum, KCRG)

JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG) - EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct that the bill only applies to private groups using a revolving loan fund to buy or sell land to donate to government conservation agencies. A prior version left out parts of those details at different times in the earlier article.

The Iowa Senate has passed a bill, Senate File 548, that would prevent an organization from buying land using a state loan program for water quality and flood mitigation projects.

Some Senate Republicans said Wednesday the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has been using the low-interest loan program called the State Revolving Fund to buy land and then donate it to government conservation agencies. They argue that is not the intent of the loan program, which is to fund projects to improve water quality and enhance flood mitigation projects.

“The money in that fund has a lot of good uses and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation does good work," said Sen. Ken Rozenboom (R-Mahaska) who introduced the bill. "Land acquisition was not one of those uses.”

The Legislative Services Agencies says the Foundation has used $48 million from the fund for land purchases since 2006 and still owes $9 million. Republicans argue that gives the Foundation an unfair advantage at buying land over farmers or other groups.

Sen. Roozenboom says the fund is specifically set aside to fund projects. He argues that using it to buy land ties up funding that could go towards specific projects without any guarantee the land will be put to use for water quality or flood mitigation projects.

During the debate Wednesday, multiple Senate Democrats spoke on their disapproval of the bill. One of those, was Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Johnson County.

He said in a state so prone to flooding like Iowa, it does not make sense to take away potential flood mitigation efforts.

Senate Republicans like Ken Rozenboom, who represents Mahaska County, said the debate was not about water quality issues or flood mitigation issues.

"This whole discussion hasn't been about water quality and flooding," Sen. Rozenboom said Wednesday. "It's about a fair, level playing field."

Rozenboom accused Democrats of "mischaracterizing" the impact of the bill to be more broadly about limiting water quality and flood mitigation projects. Sen. Rozenboom said that is not true and that the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation will still be able to buy land and donate it - just not using money from the State Revolving Fund. He also noted that the Foundation and other groups could still use money from the fund under the proposal but that it can only be used for specific projects, not land purchases.

“The state of Iowa is not being served when there is this much misinformation," said Sen. Rozenboom.

KCRG-TV9 spoke with Sen. Bolkcom, who disagreed with the overwhelming majority of his Republican colleagues in the Senate. He said now is not the time to potentially cut back on those water quality and flood mitigation efforts.

"At a time when Iowa, especially eastern Iowa, is under major flood warnings, it's no time to do less by way of creating projects that reduce flooding and improve water quality," Sen. Bolkcom said.

Sen. Bolkcom said the Iowa Natural Heritage Fund has completed 56 of these types of projects in a span ranging a little more than ten years. But despite his concerns, he can only hope the Iowa House shoots down the bill that has already passed the Senate.

"I hope that members of the Iowa House would take a close look at this legislation and make it possible for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to continue to do good work of reducing flooding in eastern Iowa," Sen. Bolkcom said.

Sen. Dan Zumbach of Delaware County said, speaking directly to Sen. Bolkcom Wednesday, that approval of the bill would give farmers the opportunity to purchase land, rather than making it incredibly easy for organizations like the Iowa Natural Heritage Fund.

"It's the little guys out there that are getting screwed out of having the opportunity to buy these pieces of property," Sen. Zumbach said Wednesday. "And now our entities are still going to buy them for our water quality projects, but the little guy has a chance at it too."

There is no timetable for when the Iowa House will address the bill.