Common Good Iowa

Guest opinion: Point Iowa's surplus dollars to what needs fixing, like lead pipes

January 8, 2024

Sometimes the answers are right in front of us.

A recent Des Moines Register story notes that Iowa utilities face a $1.35 billion dilemma: how to replace water lines because of lead pipe and the dangers it poses to human health.

We’re on course for something close to the $2 billion surplus lawmakers set out to produce by holding down investments in public services despite strong revenues. The latter are strong with the boost to the economy from recovery funds passed during both the Trump and Biden administrations. Bring in more, spend below costs, build surpluses and bank the balance.

It doesn’t take great imagination or vision to see that at least some of that surplus could be used to alleviate the lead pipe problem in Iowa. You might not even pay for the whole project – maybe use enough to match federal funds or even local initiatives. But it’s one example of how to responsibly use surplus tax revenues to meet a need that otherwise might not be met.

Iowa sadly has lacked that vision.

Instead, Iowa lawmakers have been hoarding surpluses – mainly for extra tax cuts or to roll over into future surpluses – while PK-12 education is held below costs, universities are cut, and other needs across the board go wanting, from child care to public safety to environmental quality.

These are the times, when revenues are strong, that we should be investing more in our state because we can’t do it as easily when times are tough.

Some will say we shouldn’t put surplus funds into ongoing expenses because they are one-time revenues. They don’t have that excuse here. In this case the one-time surplus dollars would be used for one-time projects, such as replacing the lead pipes that threaten the health of children and families in communities across the state.

And that is a far better use of one-time money than giving it away and letting our state wither, as the Legislature and Governor have been doing. It’s a budget choice: Give it away or fix what needs fixing.

The answers are right in front of us.


Mike Owen is deputy director of Common Good Iowa.


This guest opinion ran in the Jan. 7, 2024, Des Moines Register.

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Mike Owen, deputy director of Common Good Iowa,

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