DES MOINES — Scott Newhard was about 13 minutes into his spiel on how to lobby lawmakers for a fuel tax increase Wednesday when smartphones in the audience started to buzz.
“No Gas Hike” read the email that was hitting inboxes. It was sent by Republican Party of Iowa Chairman AJ Spiker.
“I believe it’s important Republicans band together and be the clear party of limited government and lower taxes,” Spiker wrote in a letter delivered to Republicans on his email list. “That’s why I’m certain Republicans should take the lead on opposing an increase in the fuel tax.”
Newhard’s speech and Spiker’s letter both came on Transportation Day at the Statehouse. It’s an annual event, but this year, the focus was the fuel tax. Proponents passed out palm cards with a 10-cent piece taped in a corner and printed with the headline “It’s Time for a Dime.”
According to the Iowa Department of Transportation, the state has a backlog of $215 million in critical infrastructure repairs left undone annually.
A fuel tax increase — each penny of fuel tax translates to $22 million more for the state’s road fund — is being touted as the best answer to cover that backlog.
Gov. Terry Branstad has indicated he would be open to a fuel tax increase if it can be offset by overall tax reductions.
“The governor believes we should not be raising taxes at this time,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said. “The governor believes that as long as the overall tax burden of Iowans goes down, that the motor fuel user fee is something we can look at to repair our aging roads and bridges.”
Ann Trimble-Ray was a member of Gov. Terry Branstad’s transportation advisory committee that recommended a bump of between 8 and 10 cents in the fuel tax last year.
On Wednesday, she lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the U.S. 20 Corridor Association.
“It is an uphill climb,” she said.
She thinks proponents have a solid argument for the tax increase, but being tied to some type of property tax hurts its chances. Democrats and Republicans both say they want a property tax cut, but they haven’t been able to agree on a specific plan.
She’s also perturbed by Spiker’s email.
“It certainly doesn’t help us,” Trimble-Ray said. “Being a Republican, I’m disappointed by it because I look at the need to create and keep good jobs in Iowa, maintain and grow businesses in Iowa and to be good stewards of our transportation infrastructure is the primary responsibility of all elected officials no matter what party they’re in. To blindly say no tax increases in Iowa is short-sighted.”