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It appears that the effort to address infrastructure funding will advance in the legislature next week. It seems appropriate to discuss the matter in this newsletter.
In 2011, a task force was created to study the road and bridge infrastructure in Iowa. The result was a conclusion that Iowa’s roads and bridges were deteriorating, and current levels of funding were not adequate to maintain quality roads. Most Iowans agree with this assessment, but disagree on how we should proceed.
One argument has always been that the state has adequate resources to fix the roads, but that we need to change our spending priorities. That’s what conservatives have been saying for years, it’s a valid argument, and it’s the best answer to our infrastructure funding problems. However, Iowans continue to elect a divided legislature and, as long as that’s the case, spending priorities won’t change much. Meanwhile our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate. That bothers me.
A common complaint with Washington is that politicians “kick the can down the road” by not having the courage to fix obvious problems like long term Social Security and Medicare funding, and by “passing debt on to our children and grandchildren”. One can argue that’s what we’re in danger of doing here in Iowa. First, counties and cities are increasingly issuing bonds to pay for road and bridge work, which means “buy now, pay later”. Second, are creating a backlog of repair and replacement of roads and bridges that is greater every year. So when we hand the car keys to our kids we also tell them “by the way, we’re $1 billion behind on road maintenance”.
It’s wise to listen closely to opponents of any legislation to understand the argument against it. What I have heard is that we shouldn’t raise the gas tax because “it is a solution with diminishing returns”. Well…….isn’t that the problem? We have ‘diminished returns’ because we are trying to maintain infrastructure with a per gallon tax rate that was established 26 years ago, with more fuel-efficient vehicles, and with inflated construction costs relative to 1989. Isn’t that what we’re trying to fix?
Another common “answer” is to “cut the waste out of government”. Who doesn’t want that? But, with a divided legislature, who defines the “waste”? There are always a lot of comments about “funding trails”. My research indicates there is no state gas tax money going to trails. There is a $6 million line item in the DOT budget for trails, but that money comes from the RIIF fund (gambling money), not gas tax proceeds.
Recently I’ve heard the observation that gas tax proceeds are being used for “administrative costs” as opposed to “building roads and bridges”. That is true. However there is nothing new, or fraudulent, or improper, or secretive, or unethical about that. It’s the way that’s always been done…..part of the cost of roads and bridges includes administrative costs, engineers, snow removal, mowing, etc. I think one can make the argument that those costs should be covered by the general fund just as other state departments are, but that is not how we’ve done business in the past. This could be part of the comprehensive change that I’m looking for.
The Time 21 Fund discriminates against rural counties. The new money from the increased registration fees implemented a few years ago directed that new money to be distributed to the state, city, county at 60%, 20%, 20% respectively, instead of the old formula of 47.5%, 20%, 32.5%. So that new money benefitted the state at the expense of rural counties, and that’s part of today’s problem. Under no circumstances will I support new money going to the Time 21 formula.
I’m disappointed that the legislative proposals and the transportation committees to date haven’t been more creative or comprehensive, so I have begun work on my own infrastructure funding plan. It will not be available this legislative year but good legislation takes time to develop. Any and all suggestions are welcome.
Legislative forums will be held on Saturday, February 14 at 8:30 AM at Smokey Row in Oskaloosa for Eggs and Issues.
Senator Ken Rozenboom
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