Politically, the safer route for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch would be to oppose a state gas tax hike. We give him credit for eschewing what would have been easy and saying what needs to be said about Iowa's roads and bridges.
Last week, Hatch proposed a 10-cent increase in the state gas tax, phased in over five years, as part of a program he called Building a Better Iowa Infrastructure. In addition to the gas tax hike for road and bridge work, he would dedicate 20 percent of the state’s current surplus and the same percentage of future surpluses to other infrastructure needs, such as expanded rural broadband service, rail service, flood protection and municipal water and waste management systems.
We aren't sold on Hatch's plan to commit state surplus dollars in this fashion. In our view, if the Legislature decides rural broadband service or rail service need an injection of state dollars, then lawmakers should discuss money for those areas within the general fund budget individually, not as part of an expensive, new state program.
We do agree with Hatch about the gas tax, though.
As we have said before, the road and bridge challenges we face in Iowa are beyond dispute. According to the Department of Transportation, the annual deficit between needs and the revenue available to meet them is almost $1.5 billion; for critical needs, more than $250 million.
Greater investment in our roads and bridges is crucial to the future of our state.
For those reasons, we support a hike in the gas tax (although we will keep an open mind to any new road funding ideas the administration of Gov. Terry Branstad proposes for discussion during the next session of the Legislature). The gas tax in Iowa hasn't been raised since 1989 and ranks in the bottom third among states. For more than 60 years, the Road Use Tax Fund, into which all fuel-tax money is deposited, has provided a dedicated, stable, Constitution-protected source of revenue for road and bridge work in the state.
Hatch's proposal contributes to an important discussion we need to have in Iowa. One way or another, the state must deal with road and bridge challenges next year.