Local lawmakers differ on highway money

The prospect of raising Iowa’s gasoline tax to pay for maintaining and building roads is the source of disagreement between lawmakers representing Webster County.

State Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge said during a Saturday morning forum that they would support raising what the senator referred to as a user fee for roads.

”I think folks in this area know if we want Highway20 completed we’re going to have to pay for it,” Beall said.

State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, said she would support additional funding for roads.

But State Rep. Tom Shaw, R-Laurens, opposes increasing the tax, which has remained at 22 cents a gallon since 1988.

”The gas tax, it keeps rearing its ugly head,” he said. ”I’m still opposed to raising the gas tax. I don’t believe that we need to be burdening the taxpayers with paying more taxes.”

On a different issue, Beall and Miller said legislative Democrats will try to set promptly an allowable growth figure for school district budgets even though Republican Gov. Terry Branstad doesn’t want any action on that issue until after his proposed education reforms are acted upon.

”I definitely support allowable growth and I support doing it now rather than waiting,” Miller said.

The debate over allowable growth for schools is occurring at a time when the state government has an estimated $1 billion surplus that Shaw described as an ”overpayment” from the state’s residents and businesses.

”We ended up with an overpayment by the taxpayers,” he said. ”So I’m happy to report that in the House we’re working on how we can return that money back to the taxpayers.”

”Although we have an overpayment, we have some extra money right now, that doesn’t mean that we can go on a shopping spree,” he added.

Miller has already publicly said she’s opposed to using that surplus money to start a bunch of new government programs. But she has said that some of the money could be used for some one-time expenditures for projects the state hasn’t had money to do recently. On Saturday morning, she said she feels the public would be supportive of doing that.

”I have yet to hear anyone ask for a refund of taxes,” she said.

Beall, Miller and Shaw outlined their views on those issues during an Eggs and Issues forum at Iowa Central Community College attended by about 40 people. Eggs and Issues is sponsored by the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance and the college.

Gasoline tax

The state government’s roughly $6 billion budget consists of many different accounts, but the surplus isn’t in the account that pays for roads. That account gets its money from the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees. State and local transportation officials have been saying for the last few years that the revenue from those sources isn’t keeping up with the growth in expenses.

A bid to raise the gasoline tax, co-sponsored by former state Rep. David Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, was defeated last year.

According to Shaw, the gasoline tax revenue can be used for ”anything road-related.” He said that means the money can be spent on snowplows and wild flowers to be planted alongside highways.

”I think Iowans are being misled a little bit that an increase in the gas tax automatically is going to get their roads fixed,” he said.

During Saturday’s forum, Webster County Engineer Randy Will asked the lawmakers if they would support additional funding for roads and bridges.

Shaw said he would if it could be achieved without raising the gasoline tax. He said there is money in the main state government account, called the general fund, that can be used for that purpose.

Beall and Miller both said they would support the increased funding.

Allowable growth

The Senate Education Committee on Friday approved a 4 percent allowable growth rate for school districts.

State law requires the Legislature to approve an allowable growth rate within 30 days of convening.

Doug Van Zyl, superintendent of the Fort Dodge Community School District, reminded the legislators of that law Saturday and warned that budget cuts will be coming to his district if it isn’t complied with.

”I can tell you for a fact that if you continue not to follow what you’re mandated to follow by telling me what my budget is going to be a year in advance I have no other things to do but continue to cut my budget, lay people off,” he said.

Beall said he doesn’t know how school district leaders can prepare budgets without knowing how much money they will receive from the state.

”We have to fund our future, and that’s our kids,” he said.