Governor Chet Culver is downplaying remarks he made this week about the penny sales tax for schools. On Wednesday, Culver said he’d be willing to use a portion of the sales taxes on teacher salaries. That conflicts with fellow Democrats who’ve repeatedly vowed only to use the money for school infrastructure — what it’s currently used for — or property tax relief.
On Thursday, Culver said his remarks shouldn’t be used as an excuse to kill the legislation that would make the one-cent tax permanent statewide. "It shouldn’t have anything to do with the legislation either moving forward or backward," Culver says. "…I think some people, perhaps, are not as excited or anxious as others to move forward, but we have to try to get consensus," Culver says.
But House Republican Leader Christopher Rants of Sioux City says the governor’s remarks highlighted the fear he’s had about the bill all along, that once the tax is made permanent Democrats would push to use the money for more than just school construction and property tax relief. "It’s what all of us had been concerned about from day one, that all along the Democrats and the governor were going to scoop that money and use it for another purpose," Rants says. "It ought to scare a lot of school boards, frankly."
Rants says if Culver wants to allay those fears, the governor would come out and say the money should never be used for teacher salaries. "I think it’s just a terrible, terrible mistake on the governor’s part to even entertain that idea and there’s nothing more I’d like to see than for him to say that he’d actually oppose such a move," Rants says. Back in 1998, Rants supported the legislation which allowed counties to collect a local option sales tax for school building construction and renovation for a decade if voters approved the move.
Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs is accusing Rants and other Republicans of using Culver’s remarks as cover because they simply don’t want to vote for the "People keep making these excuses up. They’re looking for an excuse," Gronstal says. "They’re looking for an excuse to avoid doing what they know their district needs to have done."
Gronstal says Republicans know Democrats have no intention of diverting the sales tax revenue from its main purpose of renovating and constructing schools. "Because they don’t want to take a little heat for making a tough decision," Gronstal says. "It is a tough decision to say we’re going to authorize a statewide tax on the penny. It’s a tough decision, but is there any likelihood the legislature is going to divert that money? No, there isn’t."
Voters in each of Iowa’s 99 counties have approved a one-cent local option sales tax for school infrastructure projects.