Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gas Attack

  From the Republican Governors Association website circa 2013 (here is the link):
“This tax day, Iowans will get to keep more of their hard-earned money thanks to Governor Terry Branstad, who signed the state’s largest tax cut in history. Governor Branstad’s tax cut is expected to provide Iowans with $4 billion in property tax relief over the next decade. Branstad’s opponent, Jack Hatch, wants to raise taxes on Iowans and proposed increasing the state’s gas tax. It’s clear Iowa should stick with the governor who has a record of putting Iowans’ hard-earned money back in their own pockets.” – RGA Communications Director Gail Gitcho

  Like it says above in June of 2013 Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad signed a 4 BILLION DOLLAR property tax relief bill into law. I’m normally in favor of reducing my taxes and I am a property owner but my property taxes went up and not down. Maybe I don't own the right kind of property since there was no relief for me. In 2014 Branstad was running for governor and his opponent Jack Hatch was in favor of a 10 cent gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge improvements. Branstad easily won his reelection and proving my long held belief that there is no such thing as more than one political party proceeded to champion and sign a 10 cent gas tax increase to pay for road and bridge improvements. The bill was signed two weeks ago and the new tax is expected to raise 215 million dollars annually.

  While I still haven’t seen any of my 4 BILLION DOLLAR property tax relief, I saw the 10 cent increase in gas prices within a week after Branstad signed the bill. In defending the bill Branstad called the tax hike a ‘true user fee’. State Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville voted for the tax increase saying in finest policitalese “The question is, is critical infrastructure needed, and is it needed right now.”. The new tax passed with largely bipartisan support and I could have quoted lots of comments but I'll restrict myself to these two.

  I’m sure the recent low gas prices emboldened Republicans and Democrats alike to take ‘more of their hard-earned money’ from the pockets of Iowans and Governor Branstad likely won’t be running for another term as governor and won’t have to defend this money grab. Personally I’m pretty fired up about the rationale for raising the price of gasoline in order to pay for a crumbling infrastructure.

  Iowa has been collecting 22 cents per gallon of gas sold in the state for the last 25 years. Where has that money been going? Did Iowa’s infrastructure situation get critical overnight or over the past year? Of course is hasn’t but the elected officials have found some other uses for the 400 million dollars a year they currently collect. How could Governor Branstad and the rest of Iowa’s elected officials pass a so called 4 billion dollar property tax cut when the state’s infrastructure is in such critical condition that a 200 million dollar tax hike is needed? Wouldn’t cutting taxes by only 2 billion dollars leave enough money to fix the infrastructure without having to raise taxes?

  I understand Governor Branstad’s comment about the new tax being a ‘true user fee’ but just because I understand it doesn’t mean it makes any sense to me. Yes I use the roads but what about people with electric cars? Where is their user fee? Is there a waiver for people buying gasoline for lawnmowers or snowmobiles that don’t use the infrastructure? The entire state benefits from having good roads not just people that buy gasoline. When counties across the state exercised their option to raise their local sales taxes the most vociferous arguments I heard for its adoption was that communities would be big winners because there were so many people from other areas that would make purchases and leave their sales tax money behind (the local option tax has since been usurped by the state and pooled among participating communities). Any community that is getting extra sales tax money from incoming travelers would benefit from any infrastructure improvements but don’t have to pay for the improvements.

  I would expect a ‘true user fee’ to apply the extra gas tax revenues on where the most traffic is. A likely candidate would be the Des Moines mixmaster which is by far the most traveled roads in the state - but NO. The first major road improvement is to make 30 miles of Highway 20 in northwest Iowa a four lane road. I haven’t been able to find out exactly how much the completion costs but I did find an article saying that converting an 11 mile stretch of route 20 to a four lane road will cost 82 million dollars and that 29 more miles will remain 2 lanes which leads me to an estimate of nearly 300 million dollars to finish the road. That’s over a year of the increased revenues going to a part of the state where less than 15 percent of the people live. It doesn’t sound like a ‘true user fee’ to me.

  And as long as I’m talking about ‘true user fees’ or user fees in general since when does the government run on user fees? Are school costs covered by taxes on people with school age children? No, but money from the Iowa Lottery is used to build schools. Marshalltown is going to have a vote on whether or not to raise property taxes to fund a bond issue for the library. If it passes I’ll have to pay for the bond issue. Why isn’t the library funded by user fees? If true user fees were important I would expect grocery stores to pay more taxes for food stamps ... I mean Electronic Benefit Transfer cards since they reap the profits from the food being sold and government workers to pay their fair share of all the rules and regulations that give them their jobs in the first place. And while I'm at it, shouldn't handicapped people be made to pay for any costs incurred by the Americans With Disabilities Act? OK I know I'm being a bit absurd but there is very little in the government that is paid for by 'user fees'.

  Having good roads and bridges in the state and more specifically a four lane highway in a desolate stretch of western Iowa isn’t seen as a benefit to the people of the state in general but only as a benefit to the ‘users’ that must be paid for in the form of gasoline fees. No one can explain why a state that spends 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year on its road system (it really does - you can read it here) has 27 percent of its urban roads in disrepair and I don’t have any confidence that and extra 200 million dollars is going to change anything. Now that the bill is passed and the price of gasoline has increased the big winners will be the people who own road construction companies that will probably eat up the extra revenue with their own price increases and the next time gas hits a decade low the Iowa legislature will hike the gas tax again and cite the reason for the hike as the deteriorating conditions of the state’s roads and bridges.

  I was discussing the new gas tax with a coworker and they said ‘There’s nothing you can do about it but pay.’ That’s true for the most part and I’ll be paying an extra 80 dollars or so to the State of Iowa instead of spending it in the State of Iowa. But there is a couple of things I can do. I don’t normally vote for any candidates from the major parties. I’ve never voted for Governor Branstad and probably won’t be able to ever vote against him but I will vote for the Democratic candidate for Governor from now on. My local Democratic representative is a Democrat and I have voted for him in the past because he has pointed people to my chess club but from now on I’ll be sure to vote for his opponent. Not that voting for either party really makes a difference but I’ll treat it as my Tums or Rolaids gas attack remedy.

  As if paying extra for gasoline in order to expand roads in Northwest Iowa wasn't enough, I got to contribute even more money when I was tagged for a speeding ticket this week. I was clocked at 76 in a 65 mile per hour zone on route 65 north where going 75 miles an hour will get you passed by every other car on the road. I was going to suggest to the trooper that was writing my ticket that he could follow our elected officials and raise highway money that way but then I remembered the last person who tried to give Governor Branstad a speeding ticket got fired for his trouble (you can read about it here).