GAS TAX UPDATE: Was U.S. 20 the sweetener?

Pumping GasBy The Iowa Statesman


Editor’s note: this article has been updated as new information has become available.


We may now know what caused two northwest Iowa legislators to change their votes and turn their backs on their constituents regarding the bill that, among other things, contained a 10-cent increase the state motor fuel excise tax.

In the Senate, the bill (Senate File 257) was approved by a 28-21 margin with 12 Republicans and 16 Democrats voting “aye.” Those who voted to pass the bill were: Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs), Senate President Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque), Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City), Assistant Majority Leaders Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo), Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines), Amanda Ragan (D-Mason City), and Mary Jo Wilhelm (D-Cresco), Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock), Assistant Minority Leaders Rick Bertrand (R-Sioux City), Tim Kapuchian (R-Keystone), and Dan Zumbach (R-Ryan), and state Sens. Bill Anderson (R-Pierson), Tod Bowman (D-Maquoketa), Michael Breitbach (R-Strawberry Point), Mark Costello (R-Imogene), Jeff Danielson (D-Waterloo), Dick Dearden (D-Des Moines), Bob Dvorsky (D-Coralville), Rita Hart (D-Wheatland), Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids), Wally Horn (D-Cedar Rapids), David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan), Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford), Tim Kraayenbrink (R-Fort Dodge), Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines), Herman Quirmbach (D-Ames), Ken Rozenboom (R-Oskaloosa), Mark Segebart (R-Vail), and Tom Shipley (R-Nodaway).

TO SEE VIDEO of the Senate debate on SF 257, click here (advance to the 16-minute mark).

State Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) was absent from the vote. He was considered by most insiders to be a solid “no” going into the debate. It was unclear why he was absent from the vote.

According to KTVO-TV, during a legislative forum hosted by the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce last weekend, Chelgren told his constituents he was opposed to an increase in the gas tax.

“I think this a failure of the legislature to budget correctly over the last few years and it’s not the fault of the citizens of Iowa and the taxpayers of Iowa, but that’s who we’re taking it out on,” he said. “We’re putting the burden back on Iowa drivers and Iowa taxpayers saying somehow it’s your fault, it’s not and I won’t be part of that process.”

The turns that raised the most eyebrows, however, were those of Bertrand and Anderson. In the weeks leading up to today’s vote, both had been highly critical of any increase in the motor fuel excise tax.

Of particular note are two tweets Bertrand made on Twitter about the subject:

Bertrand Tweet 1

Bertrand Tweet 2

Bertrand was asked to explain his change of heart, and promised to do so, but has not returned messages left by The Iowa Statesmans seeking his explanation.

Both Republicans were major proponents for completing the widening of U.S. Highway 20 in northwestern Iowa. In a report in the Sioux City Journal last month, Bertrand pledged to use his position as an Assistant Minority Leader to advance the project.

The Iowa Department of Transportation’s current five-year plan calls for completing a 12-mile stretch from Moville to Correctionville in 2018. Another 29-mile segment in Sac and Ida counties has not yet been scheduled for expansion, but would complete the 50-year widening project.

According to KCAU-TV in Sioux City, during a closed-door meeting with members of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce last month, that project was the primary topic of discussion between Chamber members and Anderson. And while he hadn’t publicly announced his position on the gas tax prior to today’s vote, he has sought alternatives to raising the motor fuel excise tax in the past.

In 2012, and again in 2013, he offered a bill that would allocate $100 million from the state’s surplus to pay for road and bridge maintenance.

“It is imperative we explore all avenues to find solutions to our infrastructure needs,” he told his constituents in his weekly newsletter in March of 2013. “At a time when Iowans are over taxed, we as elected officials should be innovative in our approach rather than raising another tax.”

Shortly after signing the bill Wednesday morning, Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters the added revenue the state will receive this quarter should allow some projects to move up. Among them is the widening of U.S. Highway 20.

According to a report by O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa, Branstad told reporters this morning that he’s recently talked with the IDOT director about speeding up the U.S. 20 project.

“Highway 20 is one of those that has been around for a long time and we want to see that completed and moved up,” he said. “This is a way that hopefully that and other key projects can get priority and be expedited.”

While the Senate debated SF 257, the House stood “at ease.” Once the debate turned to that chamber, however, the gloves came off. Several Republican representatives blasted the bill and the impact it would have on their individual districts.

In the end, however, the legislation passed by a 53-46 margin with 30 Republican votes and 23 Democrat votes in favor of passage. Those representatives voting for the bill were: Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen (R-Marion), House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer (R-Clear Lake), Speaker Pro Tempore Matt Windschitl (R-Missouri Valley), Assistant Majority Leader Lee Hein (R-Monticello), House Minority Leader Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown), Assistant Minority Leaders Ako Abdul-Samad (D-Des Moines) and Sharon Steckman (D-Mason City), and state Reps. Marti Anderson (D-Des Moines), Rob Bacon (R-Slater), Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield), Deborah Berry (D-Waterloo), Brian Best (R-Glidden), Darrel Branhagen (R-Decorah), Josh Byrnes (R-Osage), Gary Carlson (R-Muscatine), Dennis Cohoon (R-Burlington), Dave Deyoe (D-Nevada), Cecil Dolecheck (R-Mount Ayr), Jack Drake (R-Griswold), John Forbes (D-Urbandale), Greg Forristall (R-Macedonia), Tedd Gassman (R-Scarville), Mary Ann Hanusa (R-Council Bluffs), Dave Heaton (R-Mount Pleasant), Lisa Heddens (D-Ames), Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines), Dan Huseman (R-Aurelia), Dave Jacoby (D-Coralville), Megan Jones (R-Sioux Rapids), Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton), Jerry Kearns (D-Keokuk), Vicki Lensing (D-Iowa City), Jim Lykam (D-Davenport), Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City), Dave Maxwell (R-Gibson), Brian Meyer (D-Des Moines), Helen Miller (D-Fort Dodge),  Linda Miller (R-Bettendorf), Norlin Mommsen (R-DeWitt), Brian Moore (R-Bellevue), Jo Oldson (D-Des Moines), Tyler Olson (D-Cedar Rapids), Dawn Pettengill (R-Mount Auburn), Mike Sexton (R-Rockwell City), David Sieck (R-Glenwood), Quentin Stanerson (R-Center Point), Sally Stutsman (D-Riverside), Todd Taylor (D-Cedar Rapids), Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, (D-Ames) John Wills (R-Spirit Lake), Cindy Winckler (D-Daveport), and Jim Worthan (R-Storm Lake).

TO SEE VIDEO of the House debate on SF 257, click here (advance to 2-hour, 43-minute [2:43:00] mark).

State Rep. Chip Baltimore (R-Boone), who voted against allowing the bill to pass out of the Ways and Means Committee last week, was absent for the vote. His public statements before the vote, however, indicated he wasn’t necessarily a solid “no” vote once the bill came to the floor.

The increased gas tax will go into effect Sunday, March 1. At 32 cents, Iowa’s motor fuel excise tax would become the eighth highest in the country, trailing only California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

At 22 cents, Iowa’s gas tax had been 14th lowest in the U.S.