Doling out another dime
Monday marked the start to yet another annual session of the Iowa Legislature. Though recent years have seen many hot-button issues come up at the capitol, statewide political pundits, media outlets and legislators are expecting a rather uneventful gathering in 2014.
It might remain relatively cool under the golden dome this year, but there are still a few contentious topics that could furrow some brows. Ongoing discussion over a proposed hike in the state's fuel tax tops this short list despite expectations of stagnant progress in 2014. Many legislators have shied away from the controversial proposal, and upcoming re-election campaigns will only further stall its development.
Nobody likes paying more at the pump, but it's a topic that deserves attention nonetheless. Iowa's gas tax has remained at its current rate since 1989 – 40.4 cents per gallon, according to the Des Moines Sunday Register, tied for the second-lowest rate in the Midwest. Officials claim the revenue, which is added to the road use fund, hasn't been able to keep up with an increasing need to renovate Iowa's expansive road system during the past 15 years. The Register reported that a $215 million funding deficiency has left many roads and bridges crumbling even further, but a 10-cent tax hike for gas and diesel fuel would seemingly close the gap by generating an estimated $230 million annually.
It's a tricky situation for our Iowa's lawmakers. The issue has been met with bipartisan resistance – nobody wants to take credit for boosting the price of a gallon of gas even further these days. However, a 10-cent hike seems like an inevitable reality when we look towards the future. We simply cannot keep ignoring our state's highways and bridges as they fall further into disrepair, but there's better ways to raise road use revenue than by abruptly implementing the dime increase.
Iowa is fat with an estimated $867 million dollar budget surplus this fiscal year. That's a lot of money, and we have a lot of roads that need fixing. Legislators would be wise to divvy up a portion of that sum – maybe a third, maybe a half – and dedicate it towards prolonged infrastructure improvements during the next three or four years. This would be an incredibly logical use of the taxpayers' money. After all, roads are used by everyone and play a vital role in the well-being of both citizens and the economy.
Of course, the budget surplus is only temporary. We'll most likely return to Square One when the money runs out, dredging up talk of the fuel tax hike yet again. It is here that our legislators have a golden opportunity to implement a 10-cent hike on a graduated scale over the next few years. Use the surplus money as a short-term solution, while at the same time raising fuel tax incrementally during the next three years to soften the blow – three cents in 2015, three cents in 2016, and four cents 2017. We'll reach the same conclusion, but the graduated process might provide enough cushion to sooth tempers at the pump.
We can't just ignore deteriorating roads and bridges – overlooking funding deficiencies creates obvious safety issues for the average traveler. The 10-cent gas hike is an undesired solution to a thorny problem, but it's probably going to happen eventually. You have to cover the cost of rising construction and repair one way or another, no matter how cringe-worthy it may seem.