Now he tells us: Branstad will support gas tax hike

Two days after being re-elected to a sixth four-year term, Governor Terry Branstad finally came out for raising the gasoline tax as part of a plan to increase transportation funding. He told journalists on November 6, "The timing is good because gas prices have dropped significantly. That makes it a little more palatable to the public."

For years, a bipartisan group of legislators have been working on a bill to increase Iowa's gas tax for the first time since 1989. The governor has left them hanging again and again and again. The issue is politically charged, since gas taxes disproportionately hit lower-income drivers and residents of rural Iowa. Joni Ernst switched from supporting an increase to opposing it as soon as she started preparing to run for the U.S. Senate. Legislative leaders have long made clear that a bill raising the tax would move forward only if at least half the members of Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Iowa House and Senate were ready to vote for it.

Iowa House Republican Brian Moore believes "this is the year" a gas tax increase will happen, because the issue will be on the "front burner" when lawmakers reconvene in January. Moore was vice chair of the House Transportation Committee. He and committee Chair Josh Byrnes have worked closely on this issue with Iowa Senate Democrat Tod Bowman, who leads the transportation committee in the upper chamber.

Arguably, 2015 will be a good opportunity for bipartisan cooperation, since it's not an election year. However, I am inclined to think the gas tax increase will fail to gain broad support in either chamber. Many Iowa House Republicans are hostile to any tax increase, and what's in it for House Democrats to stick their necks out on the issue? Meanwhile, several Iowa Senate Democrats will face tough re-election bids in 2016, and Senate minority leader Bill Dix has long been close with leaders of anti-tax interest groups. Gasoline prices have dropped to relatively low levels now, but they could bounce back up by the time lawmakers would be considering a gas tax bill in February or March.

If Branstad had campaigned on this issue, he could have claimed a popular mandate for raising the gas tax. But he didn't, even when pressed on the issue during debates with challenger Jack Hatch.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. Although the road use tax fund clearly needs more money, I would hesitate to raise the gasoline tax without strong "fix-it first" language in the bill. The lion's share of additional revenue should go toward fixing roads and bridges that are in bad shape, not toward building new roads (or new lanes on existing roads) that we won't be able to maintain adequately.

  • Fix existing roads, and invest in a multi-modal future

    Per capita miles driven has steadily declined for almost a decade. http://usa.streetsblog.org/201...

    This is driven (ha!) by younger Americans who don't want to drive as much, poorer people who can't afford it, and older people who are no longer able to drive safely. There should be a gas tax increase - a big one - and the money should go towards fixing what we already have, and to bicycling, walking, and public transit (both intercity and intracity). Building more and bigger roads only encourages more driving, more sprawl (like the kind a recent diary about the Des Moines metro highlighted), and more harm to the environment.

    • should also be indexed to inflation

      If the 21 cent-per-gallon tax in 1989 had kept up with inflation, it would now be 40 cents (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm).

      Another option would be to set the tax at a percent of the cost, like a sales tax. Currently, gas is exempt from the general 6% sales tax (for reasons passing my understanding), so when the price goes above $3.50 a gallon, the state collects less from the gas tax than it would under a 6% sales tax. For example, at $3 per gallon, a sales tax would yield 18 cents in tax, so the gas tax only nets the state 3 cents more than if it were just taxed like most other things. At $4 a gallon, a sales tax would yield 24 cents, but under the current system the driver only pays the flat 21 cents. You could keep the dedicated funding for the tax and just set it at something above the general sales tax rate.

  • There is rural support for a gas tax increase.

    Rural roads and bridges, especially county roads, are most in need of repair and maintenance. Both District 12 (Carroll, Audubon, and E. half of Crawford co.) candidates for legislature this year, Muhlbauer and Best, supported a gas tax increase. (Best won.) Sen. Segebart, Dist. 6, also supports a gas tax. Both Muhlbauer and Segebart were previously Crawford Co. supervisors, so they are very aware of county road maintenance needs.

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