Iowa senator under fire for change-of-heart on fuel tax increase

Surplus in the state reason behind change, Sen. Joni Ernst said

DES MOINES — The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took a swipe at an Iowa state senator Monday for her change-of-heart on a statewide fuel tax increase.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, is on the national committee’s radar because she’s one of a few Republicans publicly considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin in 2014.

Ernst, a major in the National Guard and a former county auditor, said last week she no longer supports a fuel tax increase despite having publicly pushed for one in the past.

“Joni Ernst had no problem raising taxes on all Iowans before she was considering running for Senate, and Iowans deserve better than someone whose personal political ambition is the most important aspect of her decision-making process,” committee spokesman Justin Barasky said. “The truth is, Joni Ernst has been championing a tax increase on Iowa’s middle-class families and probably saw polling showing that’s a really bad idea. What else will Joni Ernst suddenly have a change of heart on now that she has national aspirations?”

For years, lawmakers have debated raising the state’s fuel tax, which has not increased since 1989 and is set at 22 cents. A commission appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad recommended last year an increase of 8 to 10 cents, plus boosts in certain fees to pay for a backlog of road repairs.

Leaders in both parties insisted the bill had to have bipartisan support in both the House and Senate to get called for a vote. That way, the tax increase vote couldn’t be used solely against members of a single party come election time. Branstad said he could support a fuel tax increase as part of a package to lower the overall tax burden for Iowans.

On Monday, Ernst said she changed her mind on the tax because the state is doing much better financially than it once was.

“After years of mismanagement by Democratic governors, we now have a healthy surplus in the state,” she said. “I think there are other ways to pay for road repairs than raising taxes.”

Craig Robinson, publisher of the Iowa Republican online news site, said it wasn’t surprising the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee came out after Ernst.

“Of the candidates that are out there now, she has a legislative record to look at,” he said. “That makes it easy to throw a little cold water on her when you start looking at the field.”

He added that Democrats use support for a gas tax against Republicans because the Republican base generally won’t support it.

“It’s not like you’re going to see them attacking her on her refusal to expand Medicaid because most Republicans think that is a bad idea,” he said.

In addition to Ernst, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whittaker, Secretary of State Matt Shultz and David Young, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, are potential GOP primary candidates.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley is considered to be the front-runner among Democrats.

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