Gas tax increase in Iowa? Ask Branstad, transportation director says

Lawmakers ask how governor plans to raise funds for critical road repairs

Iowa Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino III deflected questions about a possible fuel tax increase Monday, telling a Senate panel to ask the governor what he wants to do about the state’s road system.

State Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, asked Trombino if the governor has indicated how he wants to raise money for the state’s estimated $215 million annual backlog in critical road repairs.

“Is he ready to move forward (with a specific proposal)?” Bowman asked during a late afternoon-hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee. Bowman is chairman of the committee.

“You would need to talk to the governor about that,” Trombino responded.

“Thank you for your answers to the questions. The governor should be here to answer,” Bowman said. “I’m not asking the governor to be here, but I’m asking for about your conversations with him.”

State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, asked Trombio if the gas tax increase was the best option. The director responded there is “not going to be one single fix. When it comes to funding, diversity is the best,” although he said he didn’t want the state to bond for road repairs.

Danielson added he thought a fuel tax increase “makes sense today.”

“Every other option but the gas tax is worse in our current environment,” Danielson said.

A bipartisan subcommittee in the Iowa House passed legislation last week for a three-year, 10-cent increase in the state’s fuel tax sponsored by state Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage. This summer, Trombino released a list of ways the raise money that don’t include a fuel tax increase. The ideas ranged from a higher tax on the sale of automobiles to cutting tax-free fuel for farm equipment.

Gov. Terry Branstad has not come out strongly for or against the fuel tax or Trombino’s proposals. He continues to say he’s looking at what is the “art of the possible.” The governor also has said he’s skeptical that a fuel tax increase would make it through the Legislature but said he won’t pre-emptively threaten a veto.

Meanwhile, a coalition of groups has started to coalesce against the idea of a tax increase.

The Republican Party of Iowa chimed in late last week with a fundraising email to Republicans to “Help Us Stop the Gas Tax,” calling it “the creature that just won't die!” On Monday, the advocacy group Iowans for Tax Relief sent an update to its members expressing its “disappointment” with lawmakers who support the tax.

Asked Monday about the state party taking a role in the debate, Branstad declined to get in the middle of the argument.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” he said, “and I know there are people with strong opinions in both parties and on both sides of the aisles.”

Byrnes said the House fuel tax bill will likely get introduced to the full committee in mid-February.

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