Tax reform stalled, bonding package still moving

I was expecting a showdown in the Iowa House this week over the tax reform package that Governor Chet Culver worked out with key Democratic legislators. Republican State Representative Chris Rants announced his intention to amend the tax bill so that marriage would be defined as between a man and a woman.

However, the tax bill never came up for a vote before legislators went home for the weekend. House Speaker Pat Murphy said on April 15 that he had only 50 votes in favor of the proposal:

According to Murphy, he had lined up 52 Democrats to vote for the bill, but two Democrats changed their minds after adjustments sought by the governor broadened the number of Iowans who would get a tax cut — and amounted to a roughly $50 million reduction in the amount of income taxes collected.

“All we need is one person to change their mind,” Murphy says. “…We’re still optimistic we’ll get it done before we adjourn.”

Murphy is counting on Governor Chet Culver, a fellow Democrat, to help find the extra vote that will get the bill passed.

“We still believe that it is a middle class tax cut,” Murphy says. “We still believe it simplifies the tax code and we are optimistic that we will pass it yet this year.”

Murphy may be optimistic, but I’m feeling a sense of deja vu. Two months ago House Democrats were stuck at 50 votes for the “prevailing wage” bill heading into a weekend. The governor and legislative leaders failed to find the 51st vote to pass that measure.

If Murphy’s assessment is correct, two Iowa House Democrats supported the original tax reform bill but not the deal worked out with the governor. Does anyone know who they are, and why they are refusing to get behind the revised tax bill? Do they disagree with changes to the bill, or are they spooked by pressure they are getting from anti-tax conservative activists? It would be a big mistake for the legislature to let this bill die now. Overhauling the tax system won’t become politically easier during an election year.

In other economic policy news, Jason Hancock reports today that prospects look good for three bills which, combined, would approve $700 billion in bonding for infrastructure projects in Iowa. Click here for more details about the bills and what they would pay for. The main difference between this package of bills and Culver’s bonding proposal is that the governor wanted $200 million from bonding to pay for roads and bridges. Legislators have specified that the bonds must be used to fund other kinds of infrastructure projects.

Many Iowa legislators wanted to pass a small gas tax increase this year and next to fund more road projects, but a veto threat from Culver killed that proposal. The federal stimulus package approved this year did include about $358 million in highway funds for Iowa (click that link for more details). I’m with legislators on this one. I’d rather see money raised through bonding used for other kinds of projects.

I am glad to see Democrats move ahead on the bonding bills despite a recent Des Moines Register poll. The poll indicated that just 24 percent supported “Governor Chet Culver’s plan to borrow money to speed up public works projects,” while 71 percent said the state should “pay for the projects as it has the money over time.” That’s a badly-worded poll question if I ever heard one. I’ll bet that people who say we should only take on what we have cash for right now will change their mind once bonding money starts funding projects in their own cities and counties.

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