The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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February 11, 2013

Olson: Gas tax has a chance

Property taxes, education reform, allowable growth and mental health funding in spotlight

CLINTON — Political strategies and the frustration they cause local legislators and citizens permeated most of the discussion during the Legislative Coffee on Saturday at the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce.

The gas tax, property tax reform, education reform, allowable growth and mental health funding are tied up, leaving the taxpayers and local leaders who depend on state action in limbo.  

Gov. Terry Branstad has stated that two important pieces of legislation, allowable growth for school districts and the gas tax, will not be approved until the education reform package and the property tax reform package are OK’d.  

State Rep. Steve Olson, R-DeWitt, said he believes an increase in the state’s gas tax, which is pegged to help the state revive old infrastructure, is within sight.  

“I am cautiously optimistic we will get it accomplished, but we’re going to have to get some property tax reform to come along with it,” Olson said. “

The 10 cent gas tax increase is proposed to be phased in over a period of three years with three cents added the first and second years and four cents the third year.  

“I support a reasonable gas tax increase,” Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said. “It really is something where the leaders go in a room they just say ‘OK you’re all going to put up these many members. You’re all going to vote for it.’ It’s going to be done quickly. It’s going to be done quietly. And it can only be done if they have the Governor’s assurance that the minute it hits his desk, he will sign it.”

Like the gas tax, allowable growth, the state aid received by school districts, is also being delayed by other legislation.  

The Iowa Senate has already approved a 4 percent allowable growth for the nearly 350 Iowa school districts.

“The allowable growth package is what keeps things moving forward,” State Sen. Rita Hart, D-Wheatland, said.

The House has yet to take up the issue. House Republicans are following Branstad’s lead of waiting until an education reform package is passed before accepting the allowable growth for the districts.  

“These are holding important funding mechanisms hostage in order to have what he wants delivered to him in a package on his desk and I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Wolfe, who supports the 4 percent, said. “Let’s take care of business first. That’s what allowable growth is, it’s just plain good business to let the schools know what they are working with.”

Olson said once a likely watered down reform package passes through the House, allowable growth will not be far behind. He said Republicans support an allowable growth in the range from 2 to 4 percent.  

 “If you think everyone on our side is happy with the way things are going, you’re wrong,” Olson said.

Julie Wolbers, a sixth-grade teacher at Washington Middle School, expressed dismay with the process.  

“You’re holding our kids hostage,” Wolbers said. “It’s not that we don’t want education reform, but please don’t tie the two so closely together that we can’t make the decisions we need to for our kids and for our schools.”

Legislators also discussed mental health funding. Under the current plan, some counties, including Clinton, would be shortchanged by the amount they are allowed to levy. Clinton County stands to lose between $600,000 and $800,000 of funding for local services.    

Clinton County was also snubbed from receiving any transitional funds from the Department of Human Resources.  However, Olson and Wolfe have introduced a bill that would allow counties to continue levying at their current rate for two years until the new funding mechanism is worked out. Wolfe said she hopes this will be incorporated into the current Senate bill for funding.  

“It is such a simple fix and again it’s left to a county-by-county basis,” Wolfe said. “And just so it’s clear,we’re not talking about allowing counties to raise your property taxes, it’s just to maintain the current levy for two years while we go through this transition for regionalization. At the end of that two years, hopefully the regionalization funding mechanism will be worked out and we’ll be OK, but right now we just aren’t.” 

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