DES MOINES — An increase in the state gas tax likely is in Iowans’ future, but Gov. Terry Branstad does not expect that will happen next legislative session because he expects Iowa will have enough extra transportation money to meet critical needs next year.
However, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he expects a bipartisan group of House and Senate members would push for a phased gas tax increase after lawmakers convene Jan. 9 that would propose a 5-cent-per-gallon increase beginning Jan. 1, 2013, and another nickel increase on Jan. 1, 2014. He said there are indications Branstad would sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.
In an interview, Branstad did not address that question directly, saying he has asked the state Department of Transportation to find $50 million in cost savings, and noted DOT officials expect to have an extra $128 million for projects in 2012 thanks to favorable bid prices, budget savings and receipt of federal funding that exceeded forecast amounts.
“We’re going to be able to have one of the most robust road-building programs for this coming year than we’ve ever had,” the governor said. “So the problem isn’t this coming year. It’s going to be subsequent years.”
He said “down the road” he expects a phased increase in the “highway user fee” could need to be considered to address a projected $200 million yearly shortfall.
The governor also indicated he supported putting the money generated by controversial traffic-monitoring cameras directly into the state road use tax fund to be redistributed by formula to Iowa communities as a way to address concerns the devices are being installed for revenue rather than safety reasons.
“If they’re truly being done for public safety, then why not put all the revenue from it in the road-use tax fund? Then there’s no incentive for a community to do it just for the revenue for themselves,” Branstad said. “To me, that’s an alternative worth looking at.”
Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who tried unsuccessfully to ban traffic-monitoring cameras last legislative session, said he believes there will be a push in 2012 to channel revenue from the devices into the statewide road fund and establish uniform guidelines and restrictions on how and where they are operated.
McCoy said he expected lawmakers would consider legislation to place a moratorium on more communities installing the cameras, limiting fines and enforcement practices and possibly considering an outright ban.
Earlier this month, Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, advocated that lawmakers sidestep Branstad’s call for taking a gas tax increase off the table for one year by passing a measure and sending it to his desk for his signature.
On Wednesday, Branstad said he doubted that would happen in an election-year session.
“I first want to see us do the savings and then I’m willing to look at increasing the motor fuel user fee after we’ve done that,” the governor said. “I think it’s very unlikely that either party is going to want to put their caucus through a vote on it in this year. Now maybe that changes. I don’t know.”
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said the focus of House members will be to make certain current road use tax dollars are being spent effectively.
“Step one is making sure the money we’re already receiving from Iowans is being used wisely, and then we’ll see where that takes us,” Paulsen said.
“In a billion-dollar fund, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to look for $50 million in savings before we raise a tax,” added House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, during a legislative forum earlier this month.
At the same time, top legislators noted that the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has joined county engineers, contractors and good roads groups in supporting a gas tax increase, and some businesses are increasingly concerned about deteriorating conditions on some roads and bridges.
“I would just say stay tuned,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs.“There continues to be real concern about the highway system in the state of Iowa and a lot of people interested in helping find resources for that. So we’ll see.”