DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad said he wants to find a way to raise money for road repairs, but he still hasn’t endorsed a specific way to do so.
“This is not an easy task,” the five-term governor told a group of highway and construction groups gathered in the Capitol rotunda Wednesday for their annual Transportation Day.
“Just as there are different options to get from Des Moines to Dubuque or Des Moines to some other place in Iowa,” Branstad said, there are different options for road funding.
The crowd of about 100 gave responded with polite applause. Many of them have pushed for a 10-cent-a-gallon fuel tax increase to help pay for an estimated $215 million annual backlog of “critical” road repairs.
Branstad won’t threaten a veto on such legislation, even as he cites polls showing such an increase is unpopular with voters, but he hasn’t promised to sign such a bill either.
“I’m not ruling anything in, I’m not ruling anything out,” he said, following his speech. “I’m approaching it with an open mind.”
About an hour before the governor made his rotunda speech, a bill to raise the state’s fuel tax by 10 cents over three years made it through a House subcommittee with unanimous support.
House Study Bill 514 calls for a 3-cent per gallon increase for July 1, 2014, another 3-cent bump on July 1, 2015, and a 4-cent boost on July 1, 2016.
The bill was introduced by House Transportation Chairman Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, who wrote a similar bill last year. Several who listened to Branstad’s rotunda speech had just an hour before lent their support to the tax increase.
Scott Newhard, a former legislator who lobbies for the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, said the transportation system’s critical needs have not changed while state officials have put off the gas tax issue and, if anything, “they have gotten worse.”
He noted that gas prices probably are about $1 a gallon lower than they were a year ago when opponents cited high energy costs as a reason not to boost the gas tax.
“The gas tax is never going to be popular, but what tax do you impose that is?” he asked the subcommittee members.
Black Hawk County Supervisor John Miller said his county already has had to issue more than $35 million in bonds to get funding given that 25 to 30 bridges in his county are structurally deficit.
“We didn’t have any other choice,” he said.
Branstad struck a cautious tone when asked about the bill.
“This is the very first, tentative step in a long and involved process, as you well know,” Branstad said. “I’ve been around a long time to know there’s been a lot options and alternatives, and we’ll continue to work with the General Assembly to explore all of these different options.”
(Rod Boshart contributed to this report.)