Iowa's hybrid gas tax amendment fuels political fire

Bill would have effect of imposing a tax of 28.5 cents a gallon

Rod Boshart
Published: April 8 2014 | 5:41 pm - Updated: 8 April 2014 | 10:14 pm in News,

DES MOINES – Republican senators say they made a good-faith effort to push a bipartisan solution to the state’s transportation funding needs Monday night but the move was thwarted by a procedural dodge to avoid a politically charged vote in an election-year session.

During floor action on a House-passed bill dealing the tax administration issues including motor fuel, ethanol and special fuel taxes, Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, offered an amendment containing the so-called “hybrid gas tax” plan that would reduce Iowa’s gasoline tax to 16 cents a gallon and impose a new 5 percent excise tax on motor fuels – having the effect of imposing a tax of 28.5 cents a gallon.

Backers say the approach would generate an additional $230 million annually and would have a similar impact as raising the traditional gas tax by 10 cent a gallon as has been proposed. Currently, Iowans are assessed 21 cents in state tax on a gallon of regular gasoline and 19 cents for ethanol-blended fuel.

Before the issue was debated, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, asked for a ruling whether the amendment was “germane” to House File 2444 and, after consultation with the Senate secretary and parliamentarian, Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, ruled it did not meet the criteria to be eligible for consideration and thus making it out of order.

“I was a little disappointed yesterday that it wasn’t allowed to be voted on,” said Kapucian.

“Obviously, they didn’t consider it germane,” he added. “I think that sends a signal that the powers that be on the other side just don’t want to deal with it because, if they wanted it to come up, it would have been germane. That’s just how it works down here.”

Gronstal said that’s not how it works, that the amendment to make a major tax policy change was not relevant to an administrative measure but it was a vehicle to provide political cover on an issue the majority leader has said will require at least 14 votes from Democrats and 12 votes from Republicans to pass the Senate.

“They’re attempting to say to Iowans, oh, we were all for it collectively, but without anybody ever having to take blame. That’s their purpose,” Gronstal said.

“They had nine votes for it yesterday,” he added. “If they’re going to be honest with you, they will tell you they had nine votes. This is what I do in this building, I count votes. They had nine votes yesterday and if they tell you anything different, they’re lying.”

Kapucian said he was not certain how many fellow Republicans would have voted for his amendment because he didn’t get an accurate count and some GOP colleagues told him later they weren’t sure how they would have voted had the issue been eligible for debate.

“It’s kind of funny, if one person votes with them on any other bill, it’s called bipartisan. Why do we have an even split on this one, that’s my question to him. Now he has to have that line in the sand. Why?” he asked.

Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said he does not see it as funny, he sees it as disingenuous on the part of majority Democrats.

“That was the avenue for it from a minority standpoint. What you saw yesterday was leadership, not politics. You saw people that were willing to put their political careers out there in a bipartisan fashion and it was slapped down in germaneness,” he said.

Bertrand said what happened Monday evening in the Senate was significant because it was a situation where senators who are “adamantly against it, me being one of them” agreed to stand aside so the people who supported that approach to addressing Iowa critical transportation needs could vote for it.

“I think it was a huge hurdle for the Republican Party to clear. What you saw yesterday was a true bipartisan solution to solve a problem. This was taking the politics out of it for the future by shifting it to the retail side of it. It would have been good for Iowa. Mike Gronstal did not allow that vote to happen,” he said.

“We’ve been hearing all about that the governor wouldn’t bring it, how Republicans didn’t bring it,” Bertrand said in deflecting past Gronstal criticism. “Guess what? We did, so the conversation as far as we’re concerned is over. We put our good-faith effort forward.”

However, senators could have another opportunity when the fiscal 2015 transportation budget bill returns after being modified by House members on Tuesday. But Kapucian said he’s uncertain whether he would offer the hybrid gas tax amendment again this year.

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, floor manager of the transportation budget bill, said that measure would be an appropriate vehicle for a gas tax debate rather than HF 2444.

“What’s disingenuous is to say we’re going to take a bill and unduly expand the scope of the bill and go into a whole different area and try to pass a $215 million tax increase on an annual basis for Iowans on an amendment on a bill. To me that dog don’t hunt,” McCoy said.

Kapucian said he offered his proposal Monday evening as an effort “to move us off center” on an issue that has been talked about for several years but remains stalled. He said he decided to put up an amendment and “see what happens. Well, we found out.”

Gronstal said he has been “abundantly clear” dating back to when Democrat Chet Culver was governor that any vote to raise the state gas tax would have to be “broadly and deeply” bipartisan in a chamber where Democrats hold a 26-24 edge.

“They refuse to put up enough votes to do that,” he said. “They now are engaged in revisionist history, attempting to demonstrate what their commitment is to the transportation infrastructure in the state of Iowa and their commitment is nine votes or less. We will not take it up with nine votes from their caucus -- period, end of discussion.”

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