Gas tax, school funding top concerns

Amy Kent/Clinton HeraldIowa legislators (from left) Rita Hart, Norlin Mommsen and Mary Wolfe on Saturday speak with local residents about the current legislative session during a community meeting at the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce in Clinton.

CLINTON —It was no surprise to moderator Nathan Sondgeroth that Saturday’s legislative coffee session focused on two fiery topics — education and transportation.

In the final of three legislative updates from state leaders this session, Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt; Rep. Mary Wolfe D-Clinton; and Sen. Rita Hart D-Wheatland, took questions from nearly 30 people at the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce as those guests took the opportunity to air their grievances and concerns they have with state government.

One of the first questions to gain momentum on Saturday was introduced by Dave Rose, the chairman of the Highway 30 Commission, and it challenged the integrity of the Iowa Gas Tax bill, which went into effect in March.

“The intent of the gas tax was to use the increase to help our critical needs of roads and bridges; a 12-year effort,” Sondgeroth read on behalf of Rose. “Now, some cities and counties are using the money for salaries and equipment, this needs to change.”

Clinton is one of the cities planning to use the nearly $470,000 in additional revenue to hire three maintenance employees, which will be voted on during an upcoming City Council meeting, 

The legislators explained that with the passing of the bill, the language didn’t directly dictate the money to be used only for physical improvements to roads and bridges, though each of them had hoped cities and counties would embrace the spirit and the letter of the law, to use the money for what it was intended for.

“My understanding was, and what I voted for was cement, re-bar and earth-moving,” Mommsen said. “If it hadn’t been that I would have voted no. I know I’ll have discussions and maybe we need to do some tweaking yet this session.”

The funding concerns also led into questions about the U.S. 30 widening project’s priority on the state’s improvement list.

According to Rose, the widening of U.S. 20 is currently slated to begin before the U.S. 30 project, despite the city of Clinton’s pivotal role in pushing for the increased gas tax. Mommsen believes the reason is because the planning progress being made on the U.S. 20 project is much further along that what is currently happening on the U.S. 30 expansion.

That doesn’t mean the city and its residents shouldn’t continue pushing for its funding, said Wolfe.

“That’s the way it was explained to me that Highway 20 is closer to the point to start moving forward. I don’t know if they had a headstart on Highway 30 or if it was an easier lift. But I think all along Highway 20 has just been kind of seen as the next step that they’re going to focus on,” Wolfe said. “But you should continue pushing this issue and we will do whatever we can to help. I think it makes a big difference when a really large group of people get in their cars and drive to one of these meetings, we hear about it back in Des Moines. We will hear from the (Iowa Department of Transportation) that ‘wow there was a big crowd from (Clinton).’”

Following Rose’s question, Clinton School District Superintendent Deb Olson had an opportunity to speak, which she did so with urgency and vigor.

With an April 15 budget deadline quickly approaching, Olson expressed her disappointment with the state’s inability to come to a conclusion about allowable growth funding.

Currently the Senate has passed a 2.6 percent allowable growth offer but disagreements on what the state can afford has halted progress in the House. Democrats in the House would like to match the 2.6 or propose a higher percentage, whereas the Republican majority feels only 1.2 percent allowable growth is feasible.

“So where there is a fundamental difference here is that every year we have money left over in the budget and that’s because we budget at no more than 99 percent of all the money coming in,” Wolfe said. “I think over the past several years we’ve been setting our budget quite a bit lower. So, we have been bringing money forward each year now; it’s estimated for (Fiscal Year 2016) we’ll have somewhere between $350 million to $375 million coming forward. 

“That is not one-time money. That is money that is in the general fund that is factored into the amount of money that we are legally allowed to and supposed to use in the budget guarantee. The House Republicans are ignoring that money and pretending it’s not there,” Wolfe said.

Those figures, however, didn’t reassure Olson.

“It’s frustrating because part of this is partisanship and I get that; 1.25 does not meet my level of expenses that I have in my district, that’s the bottom line,” Olson said. “To me the biggest thing the state should do is value education and put money into education. And whatever you can do would be most appreciated because now I’m having to set a budget which puts the money back to my local taxpayers.”

Clinton Herald Staff Writer Amy Kent can be contacted at amykent@clintonherald.com.

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