DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate’s top Democrat on Wednesday blamed Republican Gov. Terry Branstad for impeding action over the past three years to increase the state gas tax to fund road and bridge repairs and upgrades.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he approached the governor six days after his 2010 election victory about forging a bipartisan effort to raise more state money to cover a projected $215 million yearly shortfall for critical transportation needs, but instead, the governor repeatedly has put up road blocks.
“Every hoop he’s asked us to jump through we’ve jumped through, and he’s still not there,” Gronstal told Iowa Chamber Alliance members who earlier called for legislative approval of new or alternative sources of revenue, including a gas tax increase, to address infrastructure needs that are impeding development.
“The governor set up three hoops, and we jumped through all three of them, and he’s still a no," Gronstal said. "I don’t know what the governor wants, and until he decides, it’s not very easy for the Legislature to get something done.”
Branstad was in New York Wednesday on an economic development trip, but his spokesman, Tim Albrecht, issued a statement decrying Gronstal’s comments.
“It is disappointing Sen. Gronstal is engaging in this level of hyper-partisan, D.C.-style attack politics before the legislative session even begins, rather than working to help find a solution to fund our roads and bridges,” Albrecht said.
“Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Branstad, Iowa has had multiple years of record-setting investments in our roads and bridges, to the tune of $700 million,” he said in his email response.
Gronstal said Branstad first wanted Paul Trombino, director of the state Department of Transportation, to identify $50 million in efficiencies, which he did and the Legislature approved.
Branstad also appointed a citizens’ advisory panel that recommended a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase among other things, he added, and later said Republicans needed to be able to tell Iowans their overall taxes have gone down before a gas tax could be considered. Gronstal said that was accomplished last session when the Legislature forged a bipartisan agreement on the biggest tax cut in state history.
Now, Gronstal said the governor has directed Trombino to shop around a list of 10 revenue-raising options in lieu of a gas tax increase that is drawing mixed reviews heading into an election-year session.
“It’s about leadership, and there’s none coming from the governor’s office right now,” Gronstal said.
Gronstal's assessment analysis drew immediate push back from legislative Republicans, who said a gas tax increase has lacked support and likely will not move forward again in the upcoming session.
“Well, wasn’t that fun?” Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock told the chamber gathering after listening to Gronstal’s critique of Branstad.
Dix said he senses attitudes among Iowans who oppose a gas tax increase may be changing as they better understand the challenges facing the state’s transportation needs. But he said those lawmakers who oppose raising the gas tax are listening to their constituents, and he doubted things would change in the 2014 session.
“It didn’t have support last year,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “I’m not sure anything has changed on that issue.”
Paulsen said “that was Sen. Gronstal’s opinion” that the blame for inaction on the transportation funding issue should be laid at Branstad’s feet.
“I don’t think there are many Republicans who ran on a platform to come down here and take more money out of Iowans’ pockets,” he said. “I have no doubt that there are some Democrats who did, but that’s not where we’re at.”
Gronstal said any effort to raise the gas tax next session would require broad bipartisan support from both political parties, but he said it’s unlikely the governor will be on board in the final year of his current term if he wasn’t earlier.
“I don’t think the governor knows what he wants,” Gronstal told reporters after the forum. “There is zero leadership coming from the governor on this issue, and so counties and cities are bonding. It’s costing more to build roads, we’re postponing problems, we’re creating bottlenecks. Nobody wants to see user fees go up. Nobody wants to see that, but people do want the potholes filled.”