Time May Be Running Out For Gas Tax Hike In Iowa

By James Q. Lynch, Reporter

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Prospects of raising more revenue for Iowa's transportation infrastructure this year seemed to have dimmed, according to Iowa legislative leaders who said Thursday there has been little movement toward forming the kind of broad, bipartisan support they say is needed to raise motor fuel taxes.

House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, acknowledged a small group of representative from both parties have been working to build support for raising the gas tax to provide funding needed to address the state's critical infrastructure backlog, which the Iowa Department of Transportation pegs at $215 million a year.

However, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, doesn't think the representatives' efforts have moved the dial.

"I don't see that anything has changed in that dialogue," he told reporters. "There's still people working on it. It's still true that every caucus has supporters and every caucus has opponents, but I haven't seen anything that has changed in that conversation."

Leaders did agree that there are a significant number of lawmakers who would vote for a fuel tax increase, but didn't see much likelihood it would come to the floor.

"I believe there are a fair number of votes for it in our caucus ... probably about equal to the percentage we are in the Legislature," Smith said. There are 47 House Democrats.

It's up to Paulsen to decide whether the issue comes to the floor, Smith said.

"It's still true that every caucus has supporters and every caucus has opponents, but I haven't seen anything that has changed in that conversation," Paulsen said.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, has introduced a bill to raise the gas tax 10-cents-a-gallon over three years. However, he doesn't have enough votes to get the bill out of committee.

More recently, he has proposed a hybrid approach that would cut the state's per-gallon fuel tax but bump sales taxes on fuel wholesalers. Every 1 percent increase in the wholesale tax would bring in $47 million compared to $22 million raised by every 1-cent increase in the pump price of fuel, Byrnes said.

If the state had taken that approach in 1989, Byrnes said, Iowa would have collected $3 billion more than it has in the past 25 years.

He's working one-one-one with lawmakers to make the case for an increase. He believes Iowa roads and bridges are critical for economic development and job growth. Transportation infrastructure is an essential function of government, he said.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, personally supports a gas tax increase, but didn't seem optimistic about action this year.

"That issue has been around for decades and over the decades the roads have not gotten much better," he said.

"I think there are significant members of my caucus who support and significant members who don't support it," Gronstal said. "It behooves leaders to determine if the critical mass is there. Those discussions are happening right now."

With both Gronstal and Paulsen signaling the session is winding down – speculation is that the Legislature will adjourn the week of April 7 -- and lawmakers' efforts turning to approving a budget, there may be little time for those discussions.

Byrnes, however, will continue his efforts to build that critical mass.
"You never know, something could break just like that," he said, snapping his fingers.
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