By Craig Robinson
Hope springs eternal at the beginning of every new legislative session. New legislators are sworn in, friends and colleagues are reunited, and proposals, both young and old, all receive new life.
Some proposals seem to be debated on a yearly basis, but no legislative action is taken. One issue that fits that description a proposal that would increase the state’s gas tax to help the state and local governments pay for new road construction and maintenance.
One would be hard pressed to find a Republican or Democrat lawmaker who doesn’t support improving the state’s roads and bridges, but when it comes time to foot the bill for those improvements, politicians from both side of the aisle grow timid. High gas prices and a depressed economy have been the main obstacle to raising the gas tax in recent years, but many conservative activist are also vehemently opposed to raising any tax, including the gas tax.
The state last raised the gas tax in 1989. In the 24 years that have past since then, the number of vehicles traveling on Iowa’s roads have increased. So too has fuel economy and the cost of repairs to roads and bridges. While more demand has been placed on Iowa’s roads, funding for upkeep has remained stagnant.
Those who advocate for the increased funding, mainly the Iowa Department of Transportation and county engineers, warn that if regular maintenance continues to be delayed, the cost to fix the roads will be exponentially higher that it would be if they are able to be more frequently maintained. The Iowa DOT estimates an annual shortfall of $215 million, and that’s just to address the most critical needs.
Regular unleaded gas is currently taxed 21 cents a gallon, ethanol blended gas is taxed at 19 cents a gallon, and diesel fuel is taxed at 22.5 cents a gallon. The revenue collected from the state’s gas tax is allocated to the state’s Road Use Tax Fund (RUTF), a constitutionally protected fund that only allows those dollars to be spent on Iowa’s public roadways. Past proposals to increase that gas tax have sought to raise the fee by eight to ten cents a gallon, which would be implemented to two phases.
There is good reason to believe that the legislature may debate an increase in the state’s gas tax this session. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Republican John Byrnes, and ranking member of the committee, Democrat Tod Bowman, both publically support the concept of raising the state’s gas tax. While the specifics of the proposal still need to be worked out, getting the proposal out of committee is an important first step in the legislative process.
Even though the proposal has bi-partisan support on the House Transportation Committee and support can be found from members of both parties in the House and Senate, support from Republican leadership in the Senate and the Governor’s office has been lukewarm. New Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix has publically stated that an increase in the gas tax is not a priority for his caucus. Governor Branstad has stated that he would only consider signing the increase into law if it was offset by other tax deductions so that Iowans would receive a net tax deduction.
A ten-cent increase in the state’s gas tax would cost an Iowan driving 20,000 miles a year in vehicle that averages 20 miles per gallon an extra $100 a years. Obviously families with multiple drivers would pay even more. That makes offsetting a gas tax increase with other tax cuts is problematic because the amount of gas taxes depends on they type of vehicles one drives and how many drivers there are in a household.
Despite strong opposition to the gas tax increase by conservative activists, Iowans in general are not necessarily opposed to increasing the gas tax. A statewide poll conducted on behalf of TheIowaRepublican.com last fall showed that 49 percent of Iowans favored increasing the gas tax to repair roads and bridges while 45 percent of Iowans opposed it. When asked if they would support an increase of the gas tax if it was coupled with other tax cuts, the percentage of Iowans supporting the gas tax increased to 51 percent, while the number opposing it dropped to 41 percent.
The polling data suggests that Governor Branstad’s approach of offsetting an increase in the gas tax with tax cuts in other areas is an approach that Iowans could get behind. The problem for those who want to see the gas tax increased is that there are not many legislators from either party that are going to champion increasing it. Despite public support and sound arguments for why the gas tax needs to be increased, it’s unlikely to happen until Iowa’s roads are in such poor condition that something has to be done. At that point, the legislature would likely vote unanimously in support of fixing our roads and bridges.
The only other way one can fathom the gas tax getting raised is if it is some sort of bargaining chip between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to property or income tax reform. The only problem with that line of thinking is that raising the gas tax isn’t necessarily a Democrat priority either. Only time will tell if this is the legislative session where a gas tax increase will actually be passed, or if it’s going to be just another year where we spend a lot of time talking about it, but nothing happens.
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