The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

December 24, 2013

Branstad should lead on gas tax hike

The Des Moines Register Dec. 21
The Clinton Herald

---- — The idea of raising more money to pay for roads has won support from a broad cross-section of groups representing Iowa city and county governments, businesses and agriculture. One group that has not been won over are members of the general public who are opposed to a tax increase.

That opposition has made it next to impossible to get a gas tax increase through the Legislature, despite valiant efforts in recent legislative sessions. In fact, a deal was cobbled together last spring that had support in both parties, in both chambers and in the governor’s office. But it fell apart at the last minute.

Advocates of raising the gas tax will be back again in 2014 when the Legislature convenes in January. The only thing that has changed is the election calendar: If it is hard to get legislators on board for a tax increase in an ordinary year, it is doubly hard in a year when they will face the voters.

That does not mean they should not try, or that it cannot be done.

The job would be much easier if Gov. Terry Branstad would take the lead. With the governor in the driver’s seat, he could bring along lawmakers who need cover.

Instead, despite dropping all sorts of hints that he would go along with an increase in revenue for roads if the Legislature approves it, the governor has not gotten out front of the issue, no doubt with an eye on 2014. Branstad has not officially announced he is running for re-election, but he has done everything but make the official announcement, and his patented campaign machine is warming up in the garage.

Still, Branstad is just the guy to make the case for raising new revenue for Iowa roads. Nearly six out of 10 Iowans approve of the job he is doing as governor, according to The Des Moines Register’s latest Iowa Poll. Branstad has a huge storehouse of political capital, and he should spend some of it on this vitally important issue.

His credentials on taxes are impeccable after getting a property-tax cut through the Legislature with bipartisan support last year.

With his enthusiasm for barnstorming the state on economic-development missions, Branstad can make the case for how safe and efficient roads are an important ingredient to economic growth. Roads are carrying more traffic, including big trucks.

He should make the argument that the gas tax should be seen not as a general tax but as a user fee that is also paid by out-of-state drivers. And the Iowa Constitution ensures that the revenue can be spent only on highways, bridges, county roads and city streets.

Branstad should explain that roads and bridges don’t last forever and must be maintained to meet demand. The state needs more revenue because the gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1989, when he was last governor. Federal spending on highways is unreliable because Congress hasn’t raised the federal gas tax or appropriated general revenue. Meanwhile, construction costs have been driven up by inflation.

It may be hard to see the need for a tax increase at a time when the state has a healthy bank balance, but the governor should point out that the Legislature has already committed most of the surplus to other things. Besides, Iowa has a separate stream of revenue from fuel taxes and vehicle fees to pay for roads. It makes no sense to bypass those constitutionally protected sources of revenue while draining other state funds to pay for roads when the states have many other needs.

Branstad should point out that cities and counties are having to issue bonds to pay for road projects. That adds to the cost and runs counter to his efforts to lower property taxes.

He should point out that the citizens commission he established in 2011, after holding public hearings across Iowa, recommended increasing taxes on fuel and vehicle sales.

Those are the arguments Gov. Branstad should make as he goes on the road across Iowa. Leaders who have studied Iowa’s road financing problem understand the need. Now he should help explain that need to the public.