One of the most contentious issues facing lawmakers this year is Governor Culver’s proposal to use gas tax money to finance the operations of the Iowa State Highway Patrol. Cities, counties and contractors are opposed to the move.
This year, more than a billion dollars will be deposited in the state’s “Road Use Tax Fund” — money reserved for road projects. Most of the money comes from the state gas tax, but driver’s license fees as well as license plate registration fees are deposited in the fund as well. Culver says temporarily using $50 million from that fund for the Patrol would be wise in the current climate.
“So that might mean for some period of time we lose the ability to invest a very, very small fraction from the Road Use Tax Fund into roads and bridges,” Culver says. “But as important, we’re able to invest in making our roads safe.”
Dave Scott, executive director of the Iowa Good Roads Association, says a D.O.T. analysis has found the fund soon will run short of the money needed to maintain Iowa’s road system.
“To take a fund that’s not meeting its own needs and then to try to fund another program out of it — it’s just ludicrous,” Scott says.
Before the current construction season, the D.O.T. rated 30 percent of the state’s primary highway system in “poor” condition and 47 percent of the miles of interstate highways were “below average.” The state’s road construction industry points to those stats, as well as reports which rate about a quarter of the state’s bridges as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
“The question of safety goes beyond just the role of the Troopers,” Scott says. “It’s a shame to begin to pit one against the other.”
But Darin Snedden, president of the Iowa State Troopers Association, says the Patrol needs a constant source of revenue, one that isn’t subject to across-the-board cuts or furloughs.
“It takes longer to respond to calls with (fewer) officers working. It takes longer to complete the calls if only one trooper, say, is covering a multiple car accident,” Snedden says. “With more manpower, you can get the road cleaned up quicker.”
The Iowa State Patrol responded to more than 250 stranded motorists during the first blizzard of the season that struck Iowa on December 8. Snedden says that’s an example of why the patrol needs a stable source of funding, like a portion of the state’s gas tax fund.
City and county officials say they’ve been tapped out by the blizzards, too. Des Moines Public Works director Bill Stowe says cities rely on money from the state for annual maintenance.
“The City of Des Moines’ snow and ice control budget is almost entirely funded out of Road Use Taxes,” Stowe says. “So certainly any reallocation between the state, the cities and counties will create concerns for us at a time of scarce resources.”
Diverting money from the Road Use Tax Fund to pay for Patrol operations is not a particularly new idea. From 1983 to 2000, all or part of the Patrol’s operations were bankrolled by the Road Use Tax Fund.