Governor Branstad and officials from cities and counties got into a pointed discussion this morning over the condition of Iowa’s rural roads and city streets — and the need for a hike in the state gas tax. 

Branstad has indicated he may approve an increase in the state gas tax for next year, but only after a $50 million budget-cutting plan unveiled today is implemented at the Iowa DOT. Branstad urged city and county officials to cut their own budgets as well, to convince the public a gas tax increase is the only option.

“There’s still a lot of skepticism out there that we’re managing things as well as we should,” Branstad said.

But local government officials, like Keokuk County Supervisor Mike Hadley, say their road budgets have already been cut to the bone.

“I understand what the governor’s saying. I just want him to really understand what we are saying,” Hadley told reporters after he spoke to the governor. “We just can’t keep putting it off.”

According to Hadley, Keokuk County has a budget of less than $5 million for its paved county roads and bridges, but the actual need is more than $15 million. Hadley explains the situation this way: “It’s not, ‘The roof is leaking.’ The roof is gone.”

Dubuque County Supervisor Wayne Demmer told Branstad counties have “maxed out” and have no where else to cut because the gas tax is the same as it was in 1989.

“Look at the cost of construction and counties today are still trying to fix roads on construction budgets from years back,” Demmer said. “We’d sure like to hear something for the counties, to help us.”

Branstad suggested county and city officials are misreading the public if they think most Iowans would support a gas tax increase now.

“I go to all 99 counties. I hear the people that want higher taxes…but I also hear from those that are very skeptical and feel there’s a lot of waste in government,” Branstad said. “They call the radio shows and write letter to the editor and they have strong opinions as well…and we need to prove to them that what we’re doing is the best and most efficient way to use those resources.”

Branstad told reporters after the meeting that county officials should close stretches of rural roads which pass by uninhabited farmland.

“There’s a lot of people think we probably have too many roads and the farms are a lot bigger,” Branstad said.

That means there’s not a farmhouse along each mile of road, according to Branstad, and the governor said an inventory of rural roads should produce a list of rarely-traveled roads that can be closed.

Harlan City Administrator Terry Cox told Branstad during the meeting that cities and counties need extra tax money now because crucial road maintenance projects can’t wait ’til 2015.

“Thank you for listening, but don’t yell at me,” he said to Branstad, getting laughter from Branstad and the rest of the crowd.

Branstad replied: “I’m just passionate about this. Don’t take anything personal.”

As for the $50 million in budget-cuts to the Iowa DOT’s bugdet, the agency’s director concludes he can cut about $10 million by ensuring road construction projects are done ahead of schedule. The DOT director also suggests making some money by selling excess land the state owns along highways and letting the companies that maintain highway rest areas pay a fee to the state to put up signs advertising their services.