Transportation leaders seek signal from governor on Iowa gas tax increase

Lawmakers, governor, had 'nice dialogue, but didn't solve the problem'

Legislative Transportation Committee leaders who met with Gov. Terry Branstad said they had a “nice dialogue,” but didn’t reach agreement on how to address Iowa’s current and future funding shortfalls.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, hoped to get a signal from the governor whether he would support his proposal to raise the state motor fuel tax 10 cents over three years.

However, the governor said lawmakers need to do more to educate the public about the benefits of additional transportation funding, according to Byrnes and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa.

“We went in looking for an idea of what he was looking for” to give the Department of Transportation the funds it needs to address $215 million a year in “critical needs,” Bowman said. “We’re looking for something we can build bipartisan support around.”

The governor gave the chairmen and the ranking minority party members of their committees little indication whether he will support a gas tax increase or any other funding proposal, the chairmen said.

“It was a nice dialogue,” Bowman said, “but we didn’t solve the problem.”

A spokesman for the governor characterized the meeting as one of many Branstad has with lawmakers. Branstad is encouraged that the DOT’s highway construction budget for 2014 will be a record-setting $700 million, the spokesman said.

The gas tax increase is not the only proposal on the table. Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, has floated a plan, Senate File 2042, to take 2 percent of the adjusted gross general fund revenues off the top for transportation infrastructure. This year, that would add about $130 million to the DOT’s budget, she said.

Sinclair believes a gas tax increase is not sustainable because motorists are driving fewer miles and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Not only that, Sinclair said, but she represents counties along the Missouri border where gas prices are lower than in Iowa. Raising the tax would make Iowa gas retailers less competitive.

Her plan doesn’t make sense to Byrnes, who predicted it would set up a “kids versus concrete” argument.

Sinclair countered that lawmakers say highway funding is a priority and her plan would put money behind that talk.

Other states have similar plans, DOT Director Paul Trombino said, and he believes it can be structured so highway funding doesn’t compete with funds for other priorities.

He believes that a diverse mix of sources is a sound approach to transportation funding. He plans to outline his proposal when the Transportation Committee meets Feb. 3.

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