The just-concluded 2015 Iowa legislative session will likely be remembered for one thing: lawmakers raised the state gas tax by a dime a gallon.
Scott Newhard of the Associated General Contractors of Iowa has been lobbying for an increase in the state’s fuel tax for years. He said the timing was crucial, as it would have been “very difficult” to pass a gas tax increase at the end of this legislative session.
“I am glad they did it when they did,” he said this week, with a laugh.
The vote came in late February and the 10-cent hike took effect March 1. Dave Scott of the Iowa Good Roads Association would like to see some sort of mechanism that would automatically increase the tax incrementally every few years, to ensure the state’s road construction budget keeps up with inflation, but that wasn’t part of the deal, so this year’s divisive gas tax debate may be replayed in five or 10 or 20 years.
“Many of the legislators here said, ‘You know, hey, we were elected to take tough votes,'” Scott said this week.
The top Republican in the House took some extraordinary steps to ensure the gas tax advanced and those actions left some of the other House Republicans who opposed the tax hike fuming. Yesterday, just after the legislature adjourned for the year, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen was asked about the decision to force the deal through in February.
“I think it’s something the session will obviously be remembered for. I mean, we hadn’t done it for a couple of decades,” Paulsen said.
Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter James Q. Lyuch asked: “Remembered in a good way or a bad way?”
Paulsen replied: “I guess that depends on your perspective. I think it will probably be remembered both ways.”
Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal said passing the gas tax was a “significant achievement” because it has increased the state budget for transportation infrastructure, but Gronstal admitted “at times” it did complicate negotiations on many other issues.
“It occupied time and energy of the session, seemed to, at some level, suck the oxygen out of the building and that’s part of the reason why we’re here in June,” Gronstal told reporters Friday after the legislature’s adjourned.
Freshman Representative Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison who voted against the gas tax increase, expects the issue to be raised by Republican voters in 2016.
“Particularly those core voters who vote in primaries,” Hotl said. “They don’t vote based on who might be running, but they vote on a core philosophy about government.”
In other action, legislators passed a new law governing when schools may start in the fall and they gave cities that allow sledding on city property new liability protections from lawsuits. Among the issues that stalled: raising the state’s minimum wage. Charles Wishman of the Iowa Federation of Labor pointed out this week that the minimum wage went up to $8.50 an hour in Nebraska and South Dakota in January.
“Right now, every state around us with the exception of Wisconsin has a higher minimum wage than we do,” Wishman said during an interview. “I don’t think that anybody here wants Iowa to be known as the low wage state of the Midwest and unfortunately that’s what we’re becoming.”
But Wishman said labor groups also saw progress on key issues during the 2015 Iowa legislative session. Unions that represent building tradesmen supported the gas tax increase — since it is boosting road construction projects.
“We see that as something that should be creating quite a few jobs here in Iowa,” Wishman said.
Wishman says there will be union work in the construction of an oil pipeline and construction of transmission lines to carry wind power out of the state and union officials are pleased legislators did not erect any roadblocks to either project. Nicole Crain of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry said her group wanted legislators to clarify a “gray area” in state tax law, to ensure manufacturers aren’t forced to pay the state sales tax on items that are used in the manufacturing process.
“Unfortunately, this is the third year we’ve tried it and haven’t been successful, so we’re going to reevaluate and see,” Crain said late this week. “But overall I think it seems people stuck to their principles, making sure they have a balanced budget and those are key things to the business economy in Iowa.”
On the legislature’s next-to-last day, incentives to boost the availability of broadband and make it easier for cell phone companies to erect new towers won approval in the House and Senate. The governor’s anti-bullying bill, however, failed for a third year.