Fuel tax bill introduced at Iowa House committee, may have enough votes

$215 million annual backlog in infrastructure repairs deemed critical at issue

DES MOINES — A bill for a 10-cent increase in the fuel tax over the next three years was introduced in a House committee Wednesday, and the panel's chairman said there are the votes to get it passed.

“We can get it out of committee,” said state Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage. “As far as votes go, I know we have the votes in the Senate, and I would be surprised if we don’t have the votes (in the House), too.”

Democrats control the Iowa Senate by a 26-24 margin. Republicans control the House 53-47.

Byrnes is a vocal proponent of the fuel tax increase, but a bill was never introduced last year because lawmakers didn’t think they would have the votes to pass it.

Gov. Terry Branstad said last week he didn’t think a fuel tax increase had enough support to make it through the General Assembly, but he stopped short of threatening a veto. The governor did not, however, include road funding or infrastructure repair in his Condition of the State speech on Tuesday.

“The governor respects the legislative process,” Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said Wednesday. “Given that it’s so early in the process, he’s not going to threaten a veto.”

If Byrnes’ bill, House Study Bill 514, makes it through the committee process, it would be up to House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, to call it to the floor for a vote.

“Representative Byrnes obviously thinks this is an important conversation to have, and he’s going to have it,” Paulsen said. “I don’t know what exactly that means. I said before, when we ended session last year, all the pieces were not in place to complete the bill. I don’t know that anything’s changed.”

At issue is an estimated $215 million annual backlog in infrastructure repairs deemed critical by the Iowa Department of Transportation. Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino drew up a list of fuel tax increase alternatives that could help mitigate the backlog, but so far, lawmakers and the governor haven’t specifically endorsed any of the nine options.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, said he doesn’t have similar legislation pending in his committee and, despite what Byrnes said, doesn’t have the votes in the Senate.

“It has to have bipartisan support, and I don’t have that,” he said. “I’m going to work with Gov. Branstad and Representative Byrnes to see what we can get accomplished.”

Although last year’s bill, which the one introduced by Byrnes mirrors, had the backing of powerful lobbying groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, lawmakers say it was unpopular with voters.

“It’s disheartening to say that because it’s an election year that this can’t get done,” Byrnes said. “Part of my mission this whole off-session was to keep the discussion alive. How can we keep discussion alive if we drop it?”

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