House speaker: Iowans ‘not interested' in gas tax increase

Under a new proposal, the tax would go up by 5 cents per gallon on Jan. 1 and another nickel on Jan. 1, 2014

DES MOINES — Advocates of a gas tax increase believe there are sufficient votes in the Iowa Legislature to such an increase this year.

However, they appear to be lacking one important vote: Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen.

“Iowans have sent us a message: they’re not interested,” Paulsen said Wednesday after meeting with advocates of a Senate plan to boost Iowa’s gas tax.

That wasn’t the message delivered to lawmakers Wednesday, however. Road builders, truckers, county engineers and supervisors, and bankers filled the Capitol rotunda to make the case for raising the motor fuel tax for the first time since 1989. Under the proposal, the tax would go up by 5 cents per gallon on Jan. 1 and another nickel on Jan. 1, 2014. The revenue would go toward a projected $215 million yearly funding shortage for Iowa’s critical transportation needs.

However, supporters of the gas tax increase conceded the outlook is not promising.

“It’s breathing, but barely,” said Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone.

“If it’s not dead, its pulse is very low,” added Rep. Dave Tjepkes, R-Gowrie. “With gas prices as they are, it makes it more difficult. It’s a psychological barrier to making the sale for a gas tax increase.”

But they haven’t given up hope and neither has Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, who sees a “50-50 shot” for an increase.

Currently, Iowa adds a charge of 21 cents per gallon on sales of unleaded gasoline, 19 cents per gallon for ethanol-blended fuels and 22.5 cents a gallon for diesel.

Good roads “move commerce, create jobs and make attractive communities,” said Larry Winum, president of Glenwood State Bank and a member of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Transportation 2020 advisory panel that recommended raising the gas tax. “Transportation infrastructure is an important part of economic development.”

It’s good for jobs, too, added Steve Streb of Streb Construction in Iowa City and E & F Paving in Cedar Rapids. Based on federal estimates, the president of Associated General Contractors of Iowa projected a 10-cent increase would translate into 5,500 jobs.

Despite the polls and anecdotal evidence Paulsen cites, gas tax advocates believe Iowans understand the need.

“If you want to say the condition of Iowa’s roads is good enough, that’s a discussion we can have,” said Lyle Brehm, the engineer for Tama and Poweshiek counties and legislative liaison for the Iowa County Engineers Association. “But I don’t believe that’s the feeling of a majority of Iowans. I challenge legislators to tell citizens their roads are good enough.”

Rising gas prices make a gas tax increase a tough sell, said Scott Newhard, executive vice president of Associated General Contractors. However, the danger of delaying a decision “is that it’s never a good time to raise taxes.”

“If you keep kicking the can down the road, pretty soon the can gets so big it will take a 20- or 25-cent increase,” he said.

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