The state’s road building industry continues to press Iowa lawmakers to raise the state’s gas tax.
The Iowa DOT has drawn up a list of other fees and taxes which could be raised instead, like boosting the sales tax on new vehicles by one percent, but Iowa Good Roads Association executive director Dave Scott says raising the state tax on fuel is still the best alternative.
“For years we’ve been talking about all these things that we could do…we could increase trailer fees, we could increase license fees, we could increase trailer fees — all these number of things that we could do. My position all along is it’s time to do what we should do and should have done all along and that’s increase the user fee,” Scott says. “It’s the most fair system we have. It’s paid for by the people that use our highways. It’s the only way to collect money from people outside of Iowa who use our highways.”
State officials say with more fuel-efficient vehicles, the state is collecting less in gas taxes and is at least $215 million short of what is needed to maintain and expand the state’s transportation system. Scott says after a decade-long debate about those needs, it’s time for legislators and Governor Branstad to act.
“I pray that the legislature does not come back and ask for another study. We’ve had five studies in the last 10 years,” Scott says. “Each study has come back with the same results, that we’re $200 million-plus short of meeting our critical needs.”
The state established a tax on fuel in 1923. It’s been 24 years since legislators passed a gas tax increase.
“There’s absolutely no reason why we should put it off any longer,” Scott says. “The need is there. We’ve had people tell us, ‘Oh, I’ll look at it after we’ve looked at savings…The DOT’s done a great job. They’ve reduced field offices by 39, I believe, so we can’t save ourself into this. It’s time to do what needs to be done.”
However, politicians are reluctant to support any tax increase, including the gas tax, fearing it will ruin their chance for reelection, but Scott is urging them to make that “yes” vote.
“We actually sat down a few years ago and took a look at every legislator…that had voted on those gas tax increases in the late ’80s. There’s not one we could find that lost their election that voted for that,” Scott says. “Now there were some people that moved from the House to the Senate and they lost there, whatever, but we could not find one legislator that you could go back and go, ‘That’s what cost them this.'”
Representative Josh Byrnes, a Republican from Osage, is chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Byrnes is a “strong proponent” of raising the gas tax, and he points to Ronald Reagan’s reelection after he raised the federal gas tax.
“In the 1990 governor election, Governor Branstad won 60 percent, I believe, to 40 percent. It’s the largest margin of victory he’s ever had as governor and that came after he raised the fuel tax in 1989,” Byrnes says. “So his largest margin of victory came after he raised the fuel tax.”
Groups like Americans for Prosperity and the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party are outspoken critics of a gas tax hike. Iowa GOP chairman A.J. Spiker says Iowans already struggling with high food and fuel prices do not deserve a tax increases on top of those costs. .
“If you’re fiscally conservative, the fuel tax is probably one of the best things we have,” Byrnes says. “It’s a user fee. You’re getting money from out-of-state drivers. Right now we have 25 counties in the State of Iowa that are bonding for roads at $163 million. I mean, you’re paying twice as much per mile as you should be and by the time you pay off that bond, you’re going to have to replace the road again.”
Byrnes and Scott made their comments this morning during taping of the “Iowa Press” proram that airs tonight on Iowa Public Television at 7:30.