DES MOINES - It was standing room only in Room 103 at the State Capitol Monday, the rotunda outside jam-packed with people opposed to state legislators' proposed budget cuts to the Leopold Center.
On Monday, the Iowa Senate approved the legislation that would seal the center's fate.
The House was expected to follow suit.
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, based at Iowa State University, was created 30 years ago as part of the Groundwater Protection Act, a landmark environmental law in Iowa. The center is designed to "identify the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of existing agricultural practices, research and assist in the development of alternative, more sustainable agriculture practices, and inform the agricultural community and general public of the center's research finding."
Three-fourths of the Leopold Center's $2 million annual budget is generated by 35 percent of revenues from a fee imposed on pesticide registrations and nitrogen fertilizer sales, according to information the center provided. That 75 cents per ton fee on anhydrous ammonia has been intact since the Groundwater Protection Act established that source of revenue in 1987.
That revenue stream would be redirected elsewhere away from the center.
In addition, the Iowa Board of Regents budget allocated $425,000 per year for the center, which would be eliminated completely.
The GOP's proposed education budget also would get rid of state funding for the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa.
Those cuts would essentially shut down the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, its executive director has said.
The center sponsors research and Extension education for key agriculture issues not just for Iowa, but across the country.
The research and education cultivated by the center is relied upon by farmers and others globally too.
In its three decades of research, the Leopold Center has helped place Iowa on the map for its research on profitable production techniques that conserve natural resources, the center has said.
While the center does receive donations, they are not enough to keep its doors open, said Mark Rasmussen, executive director of the center.
"The foundation earnings are a very small amount of our budget. If the state money goes away, then we essentially are out of business," he said. "As I understand the legislation to be written, the language doesn't just take away the funding, but closes the center."
Many supporters of the Leopold Center were shocked to learn of the proposed cuts and closure of the facility. Rasmussen said he's heard from people expressing support in favor of keeping the center open from not just Iowa, but across the country and around the world.
"We've been contacted by so many people who are pretty upset about this. But no matter the outcome, I want to thank everyone for their support," he said. "The Leopold Center is the grandfather and founder of the sustainability movement and now we'll simply drop out of that race if the center closes in Iowa. The center has kept Iowa farmers and agriculture on the forefront."
Ben Lehman, a high schooler and president of the North Polk FFA, was at the public hearing Monday. He is a sixth-generation family farmer and, with the support of his family, was at the capitol to express his concerns as to what the Leopold Center's closure would mean for all farmers and agriculture.
"For the amount of money it takes to run the Leopold Center compared to the benefits reaped by the center, there is no reason to close it," he said. "I'm surprised to see how many people are here, but so happy that so many have turned out to support farmers, agriculture and the center."
Iowa Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, an Iowa State University alum, said he and his fellow legislators are still looking at proposed budgets and will "make the best decision we can."
"It's important for us to have a balanced budget and that requires us making some tough decisions and make cuts. I love Iowa State, but we do have to make good decisions for the entire state," he said.
Fellow legislator, Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, also an Iowa State University alum, said that while the state's budget is tight, cutting this particular program is unwise.
"Especially when it's something that's contributed to the environment in such a positive way in our state for the last 30 years. I just don't think that's a good program to be cutting totally, nor the flood center. It's disturbing to me. We are known for our education and we've prided ourselves on the successes of our public schools, which do great work," Steckman said.
"Iowa State is known for the Leopold Center and this cut will be devastating, as will those to education and the regents overall."
GOP lawmakers hope to approve a roughly $7.2 billion budget this week as they hurry to adjourn the session, but with $110 million less than last year's approved budget, deep cuts are being felt across the state. Republican Rep. Pat Grassley, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it's impossible to fund every interest given the state's revenue shortages.
"We know we're making tough decisions, but we're to a point where we have to prioritize," Grassley said. "If there are budget adjustments made, it's not going to be because miraculously all this new revenue appears."
Mark Peterson, board president of Practical Farmers of Iowa, said many farmers view the Leopold Center, which for 30 years has studied best practices for sustainable agriculture, as a "moral compass" for farming.
Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, which supports independent family farms, called the proposed elimination of the center a "devastating blow" to farmers who rely on the Iowa State University center for its research to increase efficiency and profit. He said farm income is expected to drop for the fourth consecutive year, making it more vital than ever.
"Now is not the time to pull the plug on farmer-friendly innovations," Lehman said. "I understand that the state budget forecast put this proposal into play, but I can assure you that the situation for our farmers, and the Iowa landscape, is much worse."
Grassley said that when the Leopold Center began there was an expectation the organization would seek private donations.
"In the last year, or several years, there's been very little to no private fundraising," Grassley said. "It's not necessarily targeting anything, regardless of what the cut is in the budget, but trying to make sure we can fund our priorities."