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.