Lawmakers Leaning Toward Flood Special Session

June 19, 2008

Iowa Lawmakers are making arrangements for a near-certain special session to address flooding damage across the state, and some say an increase in the state’s gas tax may be on the table.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat, said he wouldn’t rule the gas tax in or out at this point.

“None of us wants to take any options off the table,” he said.

Gov. Chet Culver has said that a special session is “very likely.” But he said he will wait until damage assessments and the amount of aid from the federal government are calculated before he asks the Legislature to return to Des Moines.

Federal aid is likely to dwarf that coming from the state, but all sides concede the state will have to play a role in disaster recovery.

Legislative leaders spent this week meeting to consider their options for the special session. There was a significant push for an increase in the gas tax during the regular session, which ended April 26. Advocates made it clear they plan to renew the push.

Scott Newhard, a former lawmaker who now is a lobbyist, said he is pushing for the gas tax because there is no way to find the necessary funding for flood relief and infrastructure needs without it.

“The flood has probably done a great deal to refocus people’s attention on all public infrastructure, not just the roads,” he said.

Studies conducted by the state show a $200 million a year shortfall in the state’s highway maintenance. This year, lawmakers approved a series of registration fee increases to cover a portion of that $200 million, but rejected efforts to take a bigger step by boosting the gas tax.

Those fees would gradually increase highway funding, eventually by $130 million a year after five years, though it is far short of meeting the earlier projected needs, without dealing with any flood damage.

Senate Minority Leader Ron Wieck, R-Sioux City, conceded “we’ve got a big infrastructure problem” but was hesitant to offer a solution.

“I’d like to see the majority party sit down on a bipartisan basis and really see what our need is,” said Wieck. “We can’t have partisan bickering on this.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said consumers are already battered by severe weather and gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, and that makes an election-year tax increase a tough sell.

“Something like that is an absolute, absolute last resort,” said McCarthy.

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