DES MOINES — The governor and top state lawmakers gathered Wednesday to discuss options for generating enough revenue to fund Iowa’s pressing road and bridge maintenance needs.
The meeting was called a first step in determining whether state officials can agree on a method to cover the estimated annual road construction shortfall of more than $200 million.
Representatives of the governor and legislative leaders called Wednesday’s meeting “candid” and “constructive.”
“I continue to believe that there’s broad, deep, bipartisan support for this. It’s probably the best opportunity to get it done,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, prior to the Wednesday afternoon huddle.
Top state lawmakers say within their parties there is both support for and opposition to raising the gas tax. They, along with Gov. Terry Branstad, repeatedly have said any proposal must have bipartisan support before it is presented in the Capitol.
“Certainly, a number of people in my caucus oppose an increase in the fuel tax at this point in time. I think that’s true of all four caucuses,” Gronstal said. “But I think there’s also some people who recognize there are real transportation challenges in the state of Iowa. Iowa used to be the envy of the Midwest when it came to roads, and we’re now toward the bottom of that. So I think it’s time to do that.”
Multiple recent national studies have shown Iowa has some of the worst bridges in the country, and state and local governments say they do not have enough funds to address those construction and repair needs.
A 2011 state study showed Iowa must generate an additional $215 million annually to fully fund its most pressing road and bridge construction and repair needs.
Branstad instructed Transportation Department director Paul Trombino to generate a list of potential methods for generating more state revenue for infrastructure funding. Most measures barely chip away at the annual deficit; the most productive solutions involved some form of a gas tax increase.
In the past, legislators have been reticent to raising the gas tax, which last was raised in 1989. But with increased attention to the state’s infrastructure needs and plummeting gas prices — the statewide average Wednesday was $2.01, exactly half what it was in July 2008, according to AAA — legislative leaders say the time is right for a gas tax increase.
Because raising taxes can have political consequences, those leaders have said any proposal must have support from both parties.
“Let’s see if we can build a consensus and find a majority in both houses of the Legislature that can agree on certain things. Then, everybody will have some ownership in it, and hopefully, we prevent it from becoming a political football,” Branstad said. “I believe that the opportunity is there to work with both houses in the Legislature on this issue, and I’m very hopeful this is the year that we can accomplish it.”
Lawmakers are getting some political cover from outside business groups that have expressed support in finding a way to generate more revenue for transportation funding.
Still to be worked out is exactly how that revenue will be generated.
Gronstal insists it must be a user fee that is paid for not only by Iowans but out-of-state drivers who use Iowa roads. Branstad also said the revenue should be generated on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.
Branstad also floated the possibility of a 1 percent local option sales tax on fuel purchases, similar to the 1 percent sales tax and 1 percent school infrastructure tax already in place.
Legislative leaders were lukewarm to that notion Wednesday but did not dismiss it entirely.
“I think there’s a growing recognition that the state needs to address the deficiencies in some of our roads and in particular bridges across rural Iowa,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock. “How that gets done remains a bit of a mystery, I think, at this point. But I know that we’re interested in having these conversations and trying to find some solutions that address those problems.”
Multiple legislators have said they want Branstad to take the lead on the issue. Branstad said he does not wish to back a specific proposal, to avoid creating “a target to shoot at.” He said he will present a menu of options and ask legislators in both parties which pieces they and their party can support.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first step in that process. Legislative leaders said they will take the ideas back to their caucuses and constituents to find out what steps lawmakers can support.
The governor and leaders have agreed to meet again in the coming weeks.