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Gas-tax bill faces rough water

BY REID CHANDLER | FEBRUARY 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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A proposed bill to be taken up by the House Transportation Committee sometime this month is facing opposition, even if state lawmakers say it would provide necessary funding to repair roads and bridges in the state.

House Study Bill 514 was signed by all five subcommittee members, made up of two Democrats and three Republicans, and it now awaits review by the House Transportation Committee, which is expected to look at it this month.

“Our roads and infrastructure are in need of repair, and the costs are not getting any cheaper,” Rep. Sally Stutsman, D-Riverside, said. “We’re getting further and further behind.”

The proposal would increase the current state tax on fuel by 3 cents on July 1. Three more cents would be added on July 1, 2015, and a final 4 cents would start July 1, 2016. Currently, Iowa’s state tax on gas sits at 22 cents per gallon.

Iowa GOP chairman A.J. Spiker said the tax increase would be detrimental for families.

“When gas is well over $3 a gallon, and a lot of Iowans are struggling financially with rising costs of everything, the last thing we should be looking at is raising taxes,” he said.

According to a Des Moines Register poll, 63 percent of Iowans are opposed to the tax increase. But Stutsman said those opposed may not understand the benefit of the proposed bill.

“Nobody wants another tax,” she said. “That’s just something people generally across-the-board don’t like. But this would be a user fee.”

“If you use the road and buy gas, you would be paying the tax,” she said.

Anyone who drives through the state would be paying the tax.

The Federal Highway Administration ranks Iowa 38th in the nation in terms of road conditions, and 20 percent of its bridges are classified as deficient. In Johnson County alone, out of the 361 bridges, 42 are structurally deficient, 25 are functionally obsolete, and 67 are defective. The Iowa Department of Transportation announced it is running on a $215 million deficit to fund these necessary repairs.

“You get what you pay for,” local resident Carl Schweser said. “If you want infrastructure, if you want roads, you’ve got to pay for them. Who is using them? The people who buy gas.”

But Deb Helmick of Washington, Iowa, said she cannot afford a higher tax.

“I am disabled and on a fixed income,” she said. “Every time it goes up, it takes something out of my refrigerator.”

Spiker said there are many Iowans in Helmick’s situation, and a higher tax is not the answer.

“With the hundreds of millions of dollars that are sitting in the state coffers in surplus, that certainly should be the first place that’s looked at before ever raising taxes,” he said.

But Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters in Jan. the nearly $900 million budget surplus in Iowa is already committed to paying for programs in future years. State Auditor Mary Mosiman said on Monday the governor’s 2015 budget plans to spend $144 million more than it will take in, meaning money from the surplus will have to be used.

“It’s going to take a lot of political will to move ahead with this,” Stutsman said. “Becase it is an election year, most lawmakers will be hesitant to pass a bill that stamps a tax raise to their record. And with the poll numbers against them, the House Transportation Committee is unsure how either chamber, or the governor, will receive the proposal.

“I’m just really concerned in an election year that the political will isn’t there.”


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