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Iowa Politics Roundup: Census Numbers Confirm That Iowa Will Lose Congressional Seat - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 24 December 2010 05:21

Lawmakers, Branstad Show No Appetite for Gas-Tax Increase

An increase in the gas tax next legislative session seems unlikely given the state’s current political and economic state of affairs.

Both Republicans and Democrats concede that there is a growing gap between the revenue produced by the state each year for road and bridge maintenance and what is needed by the Iowa Department of Transportation to complete several much-needed infrastructure projects. However, it would be an unpopular idea to raise the gas tax in the midst of a stagnant economy.

“I do not anticipate there will be any movement on a gas tax this session just because of the economic situation that exists in Iowa,” said Representative Dave Tjepkes (R-Gowrie), a retired state trooper who will chair the House Transportation Committee next session.

Tim Albrecht, a spokesperson for Branstad, said the governor would not be in favor of a gas tax increase. “The governor does not believe we need a fuel-tax increase and does not support raising taxes during a recession,” Albrecht said.

Albrecht said Branstad still believes road projects are a priority, but he wants to fund them by finding efficiencies in the current state budget, freeing up funds for use.

Scott Newhard, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, said he and his organization will push for an increase in the gas tax this year, but he is realistic about the likely results.

“I would say that the climate of the electorate in November was one that was not supportive of tax increases in general, and very skeptical of government spending,” Newhard said. “I absolutely feel that the needs of highway-infrastructure funding will be discussed, but I don’t know if they will pass a gas-tax increase this year."

The gas tax in Iowa has stayed the same since 1989. Iowa’s tax on regular gasoline is 21 cents per gallon, and its tax on ethanol-blended gasoline is 19 cents per gallon, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue. After federal taxes are figured in, Iowans currently pay 40.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, the 32nd-highest gas-tax rate in the nation, according to October figures from the American Petroleum Institute.

According to Time-21 projections submitted in 2008, there will be $3.5 billion a year in public-roadway maintenance needs in the state through the year 2026. According to the same study, Iowa is projected to generate $2 billion a year in revenues available for projects. The DOT has also found that gas-tax revenues are flattening, as the economic conditions lead motorists to drive less and as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

Tjepkes’ counterpart on the Senate Transportation Committee, Senator Tom Rielly (D-Oskaloosa), said this revenue gap has many sources. A large part of it, however, is that gas-tax numbers have remained at a late-1980s level while construction costs have gone up over time.

Rielly said he and Tjepkes have a “great working relationship,” and that he’s hopeful they will be able to work in a bipartisan manner to improve the state’s roads. He said it’s too early for him to tell how serious discussions will be about any gas-tax increase this session due to the economy and the high turnover from November’s elections, but he wants the discussions to happen.

“I want to keep everything on the table, I want to keep the dialogue going,” said Rielly, who backed a gas-tax increase last session. “We need to have a good, solid conversation on how we get these roads fixed. We have to find out how we can do it the most efficiently with the least financial impact on Iowans.”

Suit on Retention Ballots Now Aimed at Future Elections

A move in court aimed at preventing three Iowa Supreme Court justices from leaving when their terms end Dececember 31 has been withdrawn.

“Nothing is being done that will affect the status of the anticipated vacancies in office on January 1,” Polk County District Court Judge Michael Huppert said after a court hearing. “Bottom line is: There’s nothing from my office that’s going to prevent that vacancy from taking place.”

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker were ousted from office in the November 2 judicial-retention election. Attorneys Thomas W. George, John P. Roehrick, and Carlton Salmons filed a lawsuit in Polk County District Court contending that the retention vote was illegal because the Iowa Constitution mandates the votes for judges be on a separate ballot.

The attorneys initially filed for a temporary injunction to prevent the three justices from leaving office next week. But Roehrick withdrew that motion, noting that state attorneys representing Secretary of State Michael Mauro, Ternus, Streit, and Baker resisted the injunction.

“Basically, the Supreme Court justices in their official positions – not Ternus, Baker and Streit – but in their official positions as justices were resisting the application for an injunction to enjoin the election results from going forward,” Roehrick said. “Since the Supreme Court’s official position was to resist that, we saw no reason to go forward with an injunction keeping the judges in office, so we withdrew it.”

The lawsuit will now focus on whether judges should be on a separate ballot in future judicial-retention elections, and it no longer has the potential to affect 2010 election results.

“We still are leaving for future litigation the issue of the constitutionality of the separate ballot for judges – district, associate and Supreme Court,” Roehrick said. “That is still the primary issue: How do we conduct those elections in Iowa in the future?”

Placing judges on a separate ballot could affect the outcome of future judicial-retention elections.

“It possibly could,” Roehrick said. “It’s going to call attention to the positions of the judiciary and [how] they really are separate and independent from legislative and executive, which they’re supposed to be.”

The names of judges up for retention are currently placed on the back of the ballot. Roehrick said he and the other two plaintiffs are asking the courts to interpret the constitution, which calls for separate ballots.

“We believe that means two ballots,” he said.

Economy a Focus, Weather a Factor in Special Election for Senate District 48

Iowa Senate District 48 candidates Joni Ernst and Ruth Smith and party leaders say overcoming the election-season hangover will be the key to victory in the January 4 special election to fill the seat left open by Lieutenant Governor-elect Reynolds.

Smith, a Lamoni Democrat, and Ernst, a Red Oak Republican, both said this week that it will be a struggle to get their messages out in the state’s largest district, especially with winter weather and the holiday season looming.

Ernst, the Montgomery County auditor, said she’s running radio and newspaper ads to spread her message in the shortened campaign period, but she will still focus mostly on person-to-person contact in the district with more than 40,000 registered voters.

“It will be difficult and what I’m relying on very heavily is personal phone calls out to the Republican constituents and voters in the district and encouraging them to go to the polls and vote,” Ernst said. “We’re sending fliers out, and I’m hoping to do some door-knocking, but because of the condensed time frame, we don’t have time to get out to all the communities.”

Ernst said she’s also expecting help from activists outside of the district. “It’s been overwhelming and wonderful,” Ernst said. “I have a lot of support from the Republican party from the local level all the way to the state level and from elected officials.”

Smith is also expected to receive support from outside the district, although she downplayed it. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky said her organization will be supporting Smith with whatever resources she needs.

“I believe the local supporters, regardless of party affiliation, matter the most,” Smith said. “My run for the state Senate is not about the Democratic party or the Democratic platform. My run is about making changes that work for southern Iowa. I do have support from the state party, but it is not the predominant factor in my campaign.”

Smith’s message is economically focused. She said property taxes are too high, government regulation is out-of-touch, and infrastructure is inadequate in southern Iowa. She also said she’d also like to propose pieces of legislation to manage the deer population, to expand the rights of dependent elders, and to create an unbiased resource for reliable candidate information.

Smith ran against Reynolds in 2008 and received 43 percent of the vote, despite Democrats accounting for just 26 percent of registered voters in the district.

The economy will also be Ernst’s focus during the campaign. She noted that Montgomery County has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, and she’s concerned about opportunities being there for her 11-year-old daughter.

“We have really hard-working people here and they want to work,” Ernst said. “They have their families here, they don’t want to leave the area, and I’m hoping if we see a change in the economy they’ll continue to raise their family here.”

Despite the Republican edge – 38 percent of voters in the district are registered Republicans – Ernst isn’t putting herself in the victory column yet.

“I would love to say that yes, it will be mine, but I will not take anything for granted so I will be campaigning very heavily, and this is a seat I have to earn,” Ernst said. “I don’t want to think that just because we are a heavily Republican district, it’s mine. It’s not a done deal until when the polls close on January 4.”

This weekly summary comes from IowaPolitics.com, an online government and politics news service. Reporter Andrew Duffelmeyer and other correspondents contributed to this report.

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