DES MOINES — Three state senators, including one who is exploring a U.S. Senate run, pulled their support from a potential fuel tax increase Wednesday, likely killing the bill for good.
State Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, said her potential bid to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin in the Senate weighed on her mind when she decided to pull her support from the controversial tax increase.
“I think so, when we look at Iowa as a whole,” Ernst said. “I tend to focus on my district, but we do have to look at the big picture.”
She said the fuel tax may have benefited her rural southern Iowa district, especially if the formula was figured differently, “but we get such a small percentage of any increase that (a fuel tax hike is) not worth it unless we see reductions in other areas.”
For years, lawmakers have debated raising the state’s fuel tax, which has not increased since 1989 and is set at 22 cents. A commission appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad recommended last year an increase of 8 to 10 cents, plus boosts in certain fees to pay for a backlog of road repairs.
The governor indicated he could support the increase if there was an overall decrease in tax burden for Iowans, specifically in the area of property taxes.
While a property tax agreement still is in the works, supporters of the fuel tax counted votes.
“It had to be bipartisan,” said Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, who backs the increase. “We had the votes in the House, they had them in the Senate Democrats. We needed to get 12 Senate Republicans, and three of them changed their minds.”
Byrnes said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, won’t call the bill without at least a dozen “yes” votes from Senate Republicans, which is half their caucus.
“It’s not going to happen this year. I don’t see it happening next year,” Byrnes said. “Now, you’re going to have the same issue in the state that you have in the 25 counties that are selling bonds to repair their roads. So taxes are going to go up, but just not for everybody who uses the system.”
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Each cent of increased fuel tax is expected to bring in $22 million for the state’s road fund. Lawmakers had considered a roll-up of a 3-cent increase each year for the first two years then a 4-cent increase in the final year to get to 10 cents.
Ernst said she agreed to support the fuel tax increase if there was movement on property tax reform, but that’s been holed up in conference committee. She said the state already is spending more money than it did last year and still not offering substantial tax relief.
“Right now, we’re looking at an increase of over 3 percent from general fund dollars, but when you look at one-time money being spent, you’re looking at over a 6 percent increase in spending, and I can’t do that in good conscience,” she said. “I think fuel tax is off the table right now.”
Branstad also seemed skeptical it would come back.
“I don’t know what the possibility is,” he said. “The fact that gas prices have gone up 30 cents in the past couple of weeks isn’t going to help. I’m not hearing a lot of interest.”