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Interest groups voice strong support for Iowa gas tax hike

James Q. Lynch, CR Gazette –

A poll conducted earlier this month found that a majority of Iowans oppose increasing the state gas tax, but there was little evidence of that at the Statehouse Monday as plans to raise the motor fuel tax advanced.

A Legacy Foundation statewide poll of 600 Iowans found 62 percent oppose raising the state’s 21-cent-a-gallon motor fuel tax. However, a lawmaker at the forefront of the effort to find more revenue to address critical road and bridge needs said there is another poll that will matter more when it comes time for lawmakers to vote on the issue.

“The poll I’m going by is what I’m being told by individual legislators when they have their forums back home,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Dave Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, said. Based on that feedback, when people understand that the new revenue would have to be used for roads and bridges, they support an increase.

“That’s the poll that will be critical to legislators when they make any determination,” he said.

At a House Transportation subcommittee hearing on House Study Bill 547 — which would phase-in an 8-cent-a-gallon increase over two years beginning in April 2013 and increase the excise tax on vehicle purchases from 5 percent to 6 percent, to make it the same as the sales tax on other purchases — most of the speakers were in favor of the bill.

The opposition came from lobbyists representing new car dealers, truck stop owners and Iowans for tax Relief.

Although generally supportive of the gas tax hike, Scott Sundstrom representing the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association said the higher excise tax would be a disincentive to buying a new vehicle. That would have both economic and environmental impacts because new vehicles are cleaner and more fuel efficient, said.

“The auto industry is just emerging from a difficult past few years,” he said. “Increasing the cost of motor vehicle at this time is not a good idea.”

Highway builders, unions, the Farm Bureau, county engineers, county supervisors, cities, truckers and commodity groups voiced support for the additional revenue.

All five members of the subcommittee – three Republicans and two Democrats — signed off on the bill.

Asked whether the threat of voter retaliation at the ballot box might prevent some lawmakers from supporting the bill, Tjepkes suggested the election-year impact is overstated.

“Virtually every state representative is in constant re-election modes, so I don’t think that intimidates anybody,” he said. “When people go back home to the forums and people tell them they don’t appreciate their local bridge being embargoed, they’re very sensitive to that.”

To him, it’s a question of when, not if.

“Naturally, there are some people who are going to have some concerns, but by and large (lawmakers) are looking to do what they know has to be done,” Tjepkes said. “We’ve been kicking this can down the road for years and sooner or later we’ve got to do it.”

A similar proposal has been approved by a Senate Transportation subcommittee and may get full committee action Feb. 15.

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