Gas tax increase a 'non-issue' in 2016 legislative races

If anything, it's helping, says Branstad

(Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)  Gov. Terry Branstad signs into law a bill that repeals 1 cent of the state'
(Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau) Gov. Terry Branstad signs into law a bill that repeals 1 cent of the state’s gas tax by eliminating a program designed to fund the repair of leaky underground fuel storage tanks. The bill-signing was Monday at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines.

DES MOINES — The politically volatile issue of raising taxes does not appear to be generating a dime’s worth of trouble for incumbents seeking re-election, regardless of whether they voted for or against the 10-cents-a gallon gas tax increase that took effect at Iowa pumps in March 2015.

“It’s been a non-issue,” said Doug Gross, a Des Moines attorney who is active in Republican politics and served as Gov. Terry Branstad’s chief of staff before making his own unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2002.

Gross said there were no political consequences the last time the gas tax was raised in 1989 and signed by Branstad, and he sees no evidence legislative incumbents are being targeted for defeat by either side in the aftermath of approving a bipartisan gas tax increase during the 2015 session, also signed by Branstad.

“I don’t see where it has played a role or is playing a role in anybody’s race,” Gross said Monday. “You can light a match, but you’ve got to have tender and in this case there’s no political tender around this issue.”

If anything, Branstad told his weekly news conference, he thinks voting for the gas tax increase is helping House and Senate members running for re-election on the Nov. 8 ballot. The measure, Senate File 257, passed the Iowa Senate 28-21, and the Iowa House 53-46. In the Senate, 16 of 26 Democrats and 12 of 23 Republicans voted for the increase. In the House, 23 of 43 Democrats and 30 of 56 Republicans supported the proposal.

“It passed with bipartisan support. It got at least 50 percent of each caucus in each house, so I do not see it as an issue,” the governor said. “The only time I’ve really heard about it primarily has been from local people telling me they appreciate the work that’s being done in their area. This is coming from local elected officials, as well as citizens.”

State and local officials, along with some groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, argued an increase in the constitutionally protected user fee that supports Iowa’s transportation system was needed to address an estimated $215 million annual funding shortfall. Opponents countered that there were others options to streamline operations to free up repair funds other than raising the gas tax.

According to Stuart Anderson, director of the state Department of Transportation’s planning, programming and modal division, raising the state fuel tax to 31 cents a gallon for regular gasoline, 29 cents on each gallon of ethanol-blended gasoline and 32.5 cents per gallon for diesel fuel has generated about $335 million from March 2015 through September 2016.

Branstad, who has spent time campaigning for GOP legislative candidates this fall, said there is plenty of evidence the extra funds are being put to good use and there was a need out there just based on the numerous detours he encounters in scuttling to various campaign stops around Iowa.

“Generally, I have heard people are appreciative of the fact that we’re seeing more road and bridge construction in Iowa than we’ve seen in modern times. There are good things going on all over the state,” Branstad added.

Gross said lawmakers also were aided by some lucky timing, given that oil prices on the worldwide market plunged so the higher state tax on a gallon of gas went virtually unnoticed as pump prices hover around the $2-a-gallon mark this fall.

The weekly average price of a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline in Iowa last week stood at $2.19, which is 20 cents per gallon more than a year ago. The average Iowa price was around $2.50 a gallon shortly after the higher gas tax took effect on March 1, 2015, according to that same Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship survey.

Ernie Adkison, political director for Iowans for Tax Relief, a Muscatine-based organization that opposed the gas tax increase, agreed there hasn’t been much discussion about the fuel tax during the 2016 campaign “so we can't say at this point that passing the fuel tax helped or hindered anyone in their campaigns.”

However, Adkison added “we do believe that this issue will come into play a few years down the road when more people realize they aren't getting what was promised or what they expected. We believe at that point, there will be more conversations with the existing Legislators that passed the fuel tax to hold them accountable.”

Adkison said he expects more reports in the future about the “poor condition” of rural roads.

“We believe the taxpayers of Iowa will be frustrated knowing there were solutions offered during that debate that could have helped solve that,” he said.

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