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February 25th, 2015

Winners and Losers from Gas Tax Increase

winner-loserA ten-cent increase in the state’s gas tax sailed through the Republican controlled Iowa House of Representatives and the Democrat controlled Iowa Senate on Tuesday. The bill now goes to Governor Terry Branstad, who has indicated that he will sign it into law. Ironically, Branstad was also governor in 1989, the last time the gas tax was increased in the state.

While the legislature can now move past the gas tax debate, the political ramifications of the vote will remain through the 2016 election cycle and beyond. The following is a list of political winners and losers from the gas tax increase.

The Winners

Governor Terry Branstad

Since he mounted his political comeback in the fall of 2009, Terry Branstad has danced around the gas tax issue. In the 2010 Republican primary, he was repeatedly attacked for increasing the tax in 1989, and his Republican opponents told voters of his plans to increase it again. Republicans’ thirst to control the governor’s office once again caused voters to overlook the issue.

While the issue was debated in the legislature for the past few years, Branstad remained hands off. He wasn’t going to carry the political football. With token opposition in 2014, the gas tax increase wasn’t made an issue in his re-election campaign. Even when asked about it directly, Branstad was always careful to never take ownership of the issue.

With the likelihood that 2014 was his last campaign, Branstad will gladly sign into law what will be more than a one billion dollar tax increase over the next five years. While many in his party will be upset with him and the other Republican lawmakers who helped push the tax increase through, Branstad will continue to be viewed as a leader who is willing to tackle the difficult problems that face the state.

Senator Mike Gronstal 

Gronstal has frustrated Iowa Republicans for years with his ability to remain in control of the Iowa Senate. Some Republicans believe that Gronstal is some political mastermind. He’s not. He just a good politician. It is votes like the gas tax increase that keep Gronstal and the Democrats in the majority.

Part of the reason why it’s been so difficult for Republicans to win control of the Iowa Senate is because a number of good Republican leaning seats in eastern Iowa only come up for election in presidential years. Five Democrat Senators currently occupy seats in districts that have a Republican registered voter advantage. A sixth Democrat represents a district that has just a 166 registered voter advantage for Democrats. Only one of these senators, Jeff Danielson, voted for the gas tax increase.

The Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the gas tax increase, which include Minority Leader Bill Dix, actually helped Gronstal and the Democrats protect their majority. Last I looked, the Democrats were in charge of the Senate. If they wanted to vote to increase the gas tax, the Republicans in the chamber should have made them do it, much like Democrats in the Iowa House forced Paulsen to pass the gas tax increase out of committee last week.

Tuesday had to be like Christmas for Gronstal.

Potential 2018 Democrat Gubernatorial Candidates

We are a long ways out from the next gubernatorial campaign, but when I see Democrats like Senators Chaz Allen and Liz Mathis voting against a gas tax increase, I can’t help but think they could be positioning themselves to run against a Republican who backed the tax increase.

AGC-Road Builders

Think about it, in the next five years alone, Iowa will be spending an additional billion dollars on roads and bridges. It’s a good time to be in the construction business.

Iowa Farm Bureau

The farm bureau has plenty of clout in Iowa politics, and raising the gas tax has been a priority of their’s for a long time. Their support provided political cover for the rural Republican lawmakers that were instrumental in passing the bill.

Rep. Josh Byrnes

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Byrnes’ position on raising the gas tax, he’s been the champion of the issue for years and passed legislation that has been a priority for some since 2006. While legislative leaders like Gronstal, Paulsen, and Branstad played games to hide their support of the measure, Byrnes was loud and proud of it. He is one of the few elected leaders who actually showed any sort of leadership in all of this.

The Losers

Senator Bill Dix

Eleven Senate Republicans voted against the gas tax increase on Tuesday. Four of the 11 are not up for re-election in 2016, while the other six are. The six others who voted no on the gas tax increase all come from heavily Republican districts.

Three first term Republicans, Senators Mark Segebart, Mike Breitback, and Dan Zumback each voted for the tax increase. The districts they represent have a Republican voter registration advantage, but the areas that they represent have caused problems for Republicans in the past. This vote, combined with a presidential election year, could put them at risk, especially if Republicans back home are the least bit upset with them.

When you are the MINORITY leader in the Iowa Senate, you really only have one job – winning the majority. Dix and Senate Republicans needed to force Senate Democrats to pass the tax increase. Instead, so many Republicans voted in favor of it, it allowed Democrats in Republican leaning districts the ability to vote no.

For years now Republicans have proven to be their own worst enemies when it comes to the Iowa Senate. They’ve been just two seats short of a majority now for four years. They needed to force someone like Brase, Mathis, Schoenjahn, Sodders, or Wilhelm to vote for a tax increase. Instead, Republicans let their Democrat counterparts off the hook.

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds

Many Republicans believe that Reynolds is being groomed to run for Governor in 2018, and while that makes all the sense in the world, one also must realize that she will be forced to carry all of Branstad’s baggage, which will now include a huge tax increase. This is a major issue for Reynolds in a primary, but it could also be an issue in the general election since I think it’s likely that the Democrats will nominate someone who didn’t vote for the gas tax increase.

Iowa Conservatives

Conservatives failed to unify and articulate a real alternative to the gas tax increase. Despite being a campaign issue in 2010, it wasn’t much of an issue in the 2012 and the 2014 campaigns. Senator Joni Ernst supported and voted for a gas tax increase in the past, but voters didn’t care when it came to the U.S. Senate primary. The same was true in the Third District Congressional race, where Bob Cramer, a bridge builder, was a favorite among some social conservatives. David Young even expressed support of a federal gas tax increase in the general election, yet nobody really cared.

The point is that, to defeat a tax increase like this, you need a number of things to happen, but mainly you need a constant and vocal opposition. We never had that. It’s not good enough to just get up and say there is waste. The opposition needed to provide proof. The opposition needed to be creative and passionate. In the end, they were neither.

Conservatives needed to define the debate. For example, they could have called it a billion dollar tax increase. Instead they said it was a 45 percent tax increase. Let me just say, a BILLION scares me much more than 45 percent does.

Iowans for Tax Relief

ITR used to illicit fear in the hearts of Republican legislators, but now it seems they barely have a presence in Republican politics. Remember the outrage when Democrats threatened to remove federal deductibility in 2009 and 2010? Thousands of people descended up the state capitol. It was crazy. People were passionate. None of that existed for the gas tax debate because Republicans are basically in charge, and because ITR is a shadow of its former self.

Americans for Prosperity

I remember reading a Washington Post article last fall about the AFP operation in Iowa. It talked about how the group was plowing millions of dollars into states like Iowa for the 2014 election. The quote that really got my attention was the following from Mark Lucas, a former Iowa Republican Party State Central Committee member who has gone from running the Iowa operation to overseeing an entire region for AFP.

“All we’re going to do is get bigger,” said Mark Lucas, an AFP regional director who oversees operations in Iowa and 10 other states. “After 2014, we’re not shutting down our offices. You’re going to see all these guys pack up the day after the election, but we’re going to stay open.”

Sounds great right? Well, AFP kept sending press releases and was opposed to the gas tax increase, but where was the grassroots effort, where were the ads urging people to call their legislators, where was their army of activists making it tough for the pro-gas taxers at their local legislative forums?  AFP fought more aggressively in the 2013 Coralville City Council races than a 45 percent increase in the state’s gas tax.

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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