Iowa gas-tax debate gaining speed

Proponents: State needs plan to cover road-repair shortfall

DES MOINES — Road builders, contractors and their allies will gather in the Statehouse Rotunda under the banner “It’s Time for a Dime” on Wednesday in what will be the most public push for a gas tax increase to date.

For months, some of Iowa’s most moneyed and influential lobbies have pushed lawmakers to raise Iowa’s gasoline tax by 10 cents, or absent that, find another way to pay for an estimated $215 million annual backlog of “critical” infrastructure repairs identified by the Iowa Department of Transportation.

They include the Farm Bureau, the General Contractors Association, the Soybean Association, the Association of County Supervisors and the Chamber Alliance.

But the kickback has been strong, too.

Iowans for Tax Relief, the Iowa branch of Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Party of Iowa have come out against a fuel tax increase, with the last one being particularly irksome for the Legislature’s Republican members.

Republicans disagree

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker wrote a letter on party letterhead to Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a supporter of the gasoline tax increase, in which he asked Byrnes to “withdraw” support for the increase.

“By sending a letter to me, telling me how to be a legislator, they’re overstepping their bounds. Completely,” Byrnes said.

“I am doing what is right for my constituents back home. The Farm Bureau represents my constituents. All these different associations, the corn growers, soybeans, all these people represent the type of Iowans I represent.”

In response, Spiker said the party is against the fuel tax and his letter was reminding Byrnes of that.

“The (Republican Party of Iowa) platform is crystal clear,” Spiker said. “We do not support an increase in the gas tax. Republicans overwhelmingly oppose it.”

Plan 3-3-4

The legislation hasn’t been filed yet, but a draft copy of a plan obtained by the Gazette Des Moines Bureau calls for two years of 3-cent increases, followed by a third year of a 4-cent increase in the fuel tax. Additionally, the legislation extends the formula for determining the tax, set to expire on June 30, for 10 years.

Each additional penny of fuel tax is expected to raise $21 million to $23 million a year. The average price of a gallon of unleaded fuel in Iowa last week was $3.74, which is 15 cents higher than the week before and the fifth consecutive week of double-digit climbs, according to officials at the Iowa Agriculture and Land Stewardship office. Iowa charges a tax of 21 cents per gallon on gasoline and 22.5 cents on diesel.

State Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he will need 12 to 14 votes from Republican senators to get the bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Byrnes doesn’t have a vote count but said the bill “will have to be bipartisan” to make it out of the Republican-controlled House.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s support is conditional on an agreement with the Legislature on commercial property tax reform. It’s a position Bowman thinks could help get the plan through the General Assembly, if Branstad stands by them.

Scott Newhard, executive vice president and chief lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, said Wednesday’s lobbying efforts at the Capitol are only part of an “extensive grass roots effort” being waged by groups pushing for the fuel tax increase.

At stake is full and continuous funding for a state road plan that’s worth about a half-billion a year to the contractors through 2017. He bristles at the mention of the anti-fuel tax campaign.

“What concerns us is the out-of-state groups coming in here with their own agendas,” he said, referring to Americans For Prosperity, which launched a “No Gas Tax Iowa” campaign this month, including an electronic petition for opponents to sign and pre-drafted letters on its website.

Americans For Prosperity has its headquarters in Arlington, Va., but has local chapters in different states. AFP-Iowa State Director Mark Lucas did not return a message left at his office.

Making reductions

Iowa Department of Transportation Paul Trombino said the department is making reductions where it can, but there’s no Plan B if new revenue doesn’t come in other than cutting back on the work it contracts.

“We don’t have a list per se,” Trombino said. “We would have to review our (road) program and make adjustments where necessary.”The department doesn’t officially advocate for the tax increase or any other method of increasing revenue.

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