Coronavirus muddies financial waters for parks

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Cedar Rapids Gazette

With guests in attendance, Gov. Kim Reynolds rededicated Backbone State Park, Iowa's oldest state park, on July 24, 2020, as part of this year's centennial celebration of the state park system.

Early in 2020, a movement picked up pace at the Iowa State Capitol to provide more money to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Gov. Kim Reynolds presented the Invest in Iowa Act, which would increase the state sales tax by a penny to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust.

It was a move 10 years in the making. In 2010, Iowans voted to create the trust fund through a constitutional amendment, but the fund has never been funded. The governor’s plan would have tweaked the original formula to finance not only water quality and conservation programs but also mental health programs, while cutting income and property taxes.  

Clear Lake State Park, located in northern Iowa, offers campgrounds and beach activities for visitors. Photo by Danielle Gehr / IowaWatch

The proposal rallied applause from a number of lawmakers and powerful lobbying groups, although some criticized alterations to the original funding formula. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Financial fallout from the coronavirus dampened any momentum for tax reform by the time the Iowa Legislature adjourned in June.

Could the proposal regain momentum when legislators reconvene in January?

“That’s impossible to predict” because there’s so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, said state Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, chairman of the Senate’s natural resources and environment committee.

Which may seem a perfect irony for the year 2020: COVID-19 prompted record numbers of Iowans to retreat to state parks, yet the pandemic also sapped support in the Statehouse for pumping more dollars into the park budgets.

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This project, Iowa’s State Parks, is a partnership between IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Iowa Newspaper Foundation with the goal of looking closely at one of Iowa’s most valued resources (especially this year): the state parks system.