Lawmakers create plan serving both rural and ubran interests: Mason City IA Globe Gazette, 1/13/07

By Dan Gearino

In Iowa politics, the greatest conflict isn’t necessarily between Democrats and Republicans, it’s between urban and rural. At least that’s what a coalition of legislators and city leaders believe — and they’re sick of it.

The group is putting together a five-point plan aimed at serving the mutual interests of urban and rural economic development.

“As rural Iowa grows, all of Iowa benefits, and as urban Iowa grows, all of Iowa benefits. We need to put programs together than can benefit these communities simultaneously,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, one of the lead sponsors of the plan.

A preliminary draft of the plan includes the following elements:
  • A tripling of the tax credit for historic preservation and cultural districts.
  • A sales tax exemption for art sold in designated cultural districts.
  • A new program for job training in areas with high unemployment or a shortage of skilled workers.
  • A doubling of the funding for the Main Street program, which helps communities revitalize old downtowns.

And then there’s the controversial part: The plan would allow local governments to seize private property for the purpose of connecting existing recreational trails. To pay for the land acquisition, the state would sell bonds and make a $2.9 million payment on the bonds each year.

The total cost for all of this would be in the neighborhood of $20 million per year. A precise cost estimate is not yet available.

Urban vs. rural
The idea of urban-rural cooperation gets a lot of talk, but has little to show for it. Rural legislators complain that the state’s largest economic development program, the Iowa Values Fund, gives a grossly disproportionate share of benefits to urban areas. At the same time, urban legislators complain that the state’s highway funding system devotes way too much money to rural roads and not enough to the areas with the most traffic.

This tension between urban and rural plays out in just about every major issue before the legislature.

In an attempt to get beyond this conflict, a group gathered last September in Marshalltown for a day of seminars and policy discussions. This was the meeting that led to the set of proposals.

“It’s an acknowledgement that small towns and big-city neighborhoods have more in common than they have dissimilar,” said Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, one of the organizers of the event.

Among the participants were the mayors of Carlisle, Marshalltown, Mason City, Newton and Waterloo; city council members or staff members from Davenport, Des Moines and Marion; and state legislators.

Mason City Mayor Roger Bang said he thinks there are two Iowas in terms of economic growth — one that includes rapidly growing urban and suburban areas, and the “other Iowa” that includes the small- and medium-size cities and rural areas. He said the Marshalltown conference was worthwhile because it sought to bring down those divisions.

“Mason City is part of the other Iowa,” he said. “Our main challenge is attempting to grow the population and grow employment, which hopefully grows income for people in our areas. Anything we can do to assist that growth, we should be doing.”

He said the work force training portion of the plan would help his city meet those goals.

Bang also is a big supporter of expanding historic tax credits.

Eminent domain revisited
Most parts of new plan will likely have wide support. The big exception is the proposed changes to eminent domain.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack signed a bill in his first term that bans local governments from seizing land for recreational trails. And last year, the legislature overwhelmingly approved wide-ranging restrictions on eminent domain, a measure that became law through an override of a Vilsack veto. Both measures had strong support from the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Considering this recent history, the trails proposal faces an uphill fight, but the people behind the plan say the fight is worthwhile.

Marshalltown Mayor Gene Beach points to two bike trails in his region, one that goes through the center of town and one in a rural area just outside the city. The trails are just a few miles away from connecting with each other, but the land in-between is owned by a farmer who refuses to sell.

“One of the greatest things we can do is provide people with opportunities to walk and to bike,” Beach said.

He thinks recreational trails are an amenity that can help attract new residents and tourists, but the trails need to be long and they need to go somewhere.

Any attempt to change eminent domain rules will face stiff opposition from the Farm Bureau. Christina Gruenhagen, government relations counsel for the group, said she can’t comment on the new proposal because she hasn’t seen it.

Speaking in general about eminent domain for trails, she said the Farm Bureau “would certainly oppose any attempt to erode private property rights.”

Bang said the proposed change in eminent domain is one part of the plan he can’t support. He notes that Mason City has been able to construct a large trail system over the last few years without seizing farm land.

“We continue to develop (trails) even more fully,” he said.

Dotzler strongly supports the trails proposal, but won’t let it derail the whole plan if he senses strong opposition.

“This bill is not going to hang or die on one single provision,” he said.

Mason City IA Globe Gazette: http://www.globegazette.com