Sac (County) Economic and Tourism executive director Shirley Phillips makes the case for a gas-tax increase to State Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail. Segebart supports a proposed 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, a position he made clear in his 2012 campaign for the Senate. Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
Sac (County) Economic and Tourism executive director Shirley Phillips makes the case for a gas-tax increase to State Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail. Segebart supports a proposed 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, a position he made clear in his 2012 campaign for the Senate. Daily Times Herald photo by Douglas Burns
February 28, 2013

DES MOINES - Carroll-area economic development leaders and elected officials joined more than 200 highway corridor advocates from across Iowa at the State Capitol in Des Moines for a battery of meetings with legislators and the governor Wednesday. The mission: boost revenue to improve roadway infrastructure.

Republicans and Democrats alike, largely from rural areas, pressed Statehouse leaders to pass a 10-cent-a-gallon increase to the gas tax - which supporters couched as a user fee - to fund a more than $200 million backlog in essential road and bridge work. Carroll Mayor Adam Schweers and Carroll County Supervisors Marty Danzer and Gene Meiners helped lead a contingent of 10 people from Carroll County.

They noted, among other things, that money raised from taxes on fuel and registration fees must, according to the Iowa Constitution, go only to road and bridge construction and repair. The funds can't legally pay for, say, modern rest stops or bicycle trails, as some detractors maintain.

Iowa's gas tax has not been increased since 1989.

"How many of you are living on 1989 wages?" said Ann Trimble-Ray of Early, a U.S. Highway 20 advocate, active Republican and lead organizer of Transportation Day at the Capitol.

At a Senate Transportation Committee hearing in the afternoon, Jefferson Mayor Craig Berry and other Greene County officials talked about the pressing need for funds for county road and city streets, Berry noted that the city's substantial investments in water and wastewater infrastructure, much of it located beneath streets, is in jeopardy if transportation funding is inadequate.

Senators and county supervisors from around Iowa discussed what some believe is the realistic if not imminent possibility of some rural roads and bridges being embargoed because there's not enough money to keep them safe. According to The Des Moines Register, the annual shortfall for funding for work on the most deteriorated bridges and roads is about $215 million. The system as a whole is $1.6 billion short each year on what is needed to keep the roads in solid shape, The Register reports, based on a DOT study.

State Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, recalled a high-profile infrastructure disaster in the Midwest, saying he didn't want it to take a similar incident, maybe even with a school bus, occurring in Iowa to prompt legislative action.

"Nobody ever thought the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis would collapse, and it did," said Byrnes, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and a supporter of a 10-cent gas increase.

The I-35-West bridge in Minneapolis fell into the Mississippi River in August 2007, killing 13 people.

Where local government budgets are concerned, some counties and cities are bonding to pay for basic road work, which adds interest costs to property tax burdens, Byrnes said.

"Now they're going to have to pay back the interest on those bonds," Brynes said.

Schweers told several legislators that Carroll is using local-option sales tax dollars to do street maintenance, and that the city should be doing more road work than it is but is hamstrung be atrophying state-financed road-use tax coffers.

Byrnes urged highway advocates to keep pressing the case to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

"The more he hears that message, the more he's going to be receptive to it," Byrnes said.

Byrnes cast the debate in terms of job creation and economic development as well.

"Anybody who's thinking about the fuel tax, they've got to know it creates jobs," Byrnes said.

Then there's the argument that a fuel tax requires out-of-state motorists to pay for the work - rather than having it heaped entirely on Iowans through property taxes at the local level. Twenty percent of gas taxes in Iowa are paid for by people from other states, according to the Associated General Contractors of Iowa.

Sac (County) Economic and Tourism Development executive director Shirley Phillips, a leading U.S. Highway 20 supporter, led a meeting of about 20 highway advocates with Iowa House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines.

McCarthy, who supports a fuel-tax increase, said the tea party movement is making compromise and legislating challenging on the transportation front and in other arenas as certain conservative groups are pressuring Republicans to oppose any revenue-increasing measures, regardless of the immediacy where public safety is concerned.

"There is what I call the talk-radio-ization of our culture," McCarthy said during a meeting in his office at the Capitol.

Branstad said he doesn't view the collection of state revenue at the gas pump as a tax, per se.

"I know that all of you here are interested in something called a gas tax," Branstad said during a news conference in the Capitol rotunda. "I prefer that we call it 'the road-user fee.'"

Branstad said he wants to see property-tax relief passed first so state leaders have more credibility with Iowans on a fuel-tax increase.

"I believe that's something that can gain legislative support," Branstad said.

Iowa Republican Party Chairman AJ Spiker sent out a news release Wednesday saying the GOP's position on fuel-tax increases is clear.

"Most Iowans see raising the gas tax as an unnecessary increase when the state is currently holding a budget surplus of nearly $1 billion and hardworking families are struggling to make ends meet," Spiker said in the statement. "Further, it has been reported by AAA that gas prices are at record highs for this time of year and the last thing Iowa families need is the government taking more of their hard-earned money at the gas pump. We strongly encourage all our elected state representatives to soundly reject this misguided tax increase that will hurt hardworking Iowans, should it ever be brought up for discussion."

McCarthy noted that conservative activists and talk-show hosts in Iowa are threatening Republicans with primary opposition - and referring to supporters of gax-tax hikes as RINO's (Republicans in Name Only).

"You gotta get through this ideology that's very pervasive right now," McCarthy said.

State Sen. Todd Bowman, D-Maquoketa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told The Daily Times Herald that developing legislative language on a fuel-tax hike would phase in a 10-cent increase over three years - possibly 3 cents, 3 cents and 4 cents.