Political Mercury

February 3rd, 2011 |



By Douglas Burns


Watch for Thune, Branstad’s foot not off gas tax


Some well-placed northwest Iowa Republicans I spoke with at the state capitol during Transportation Day this past Wednesday say the most overlooked 2012 potential presidential candidate is U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Thune, they say, is beloved in northwest Iowa, where the Sioux City media cover Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.

He’s well known in deeply conservative turf.

What’s more, Thune burnished his conservative credentials by knocking off former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who was political enemy No. 1 for the GOP not so long ago.

Yes, Thune looks presidential, with the strong chin and a runner’s physique that makes him appear much younger than 50. And, sure, he did look dashing as the Ken part of the congressional bi-partisan “it” couple during President Obama’s State Of The Union speech as Thune sat next to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. as part of all that creepy aisle-jumping political “date” business. Man, that was creepy.

Overlooked is this: Thune comes from Murdo, S.D., a town of about 700 people. He’s a natural in the settings of the Iowa caucuses.

If the 2012 race is a referendum on the economy and Obama, the GOP may be wise to place an experienced political hand, a safe bet who looks the part, in Thune in the opposing box on the ballot.

* * *

In remarks to a transportation gathering in the Henry A. Wallace Building just a block from the capitol last week, Gov. Terry Branstad said his No. 1 priority is job creation. But unlike his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, the Republican governor did not slam the door shut on the possibility of a gas-tax increase in the near future.

“We want to go about it in a thoughtful and systematic way,” Branstad said.

Culver had said flatly he would not support an increase.

“I’m not going to make those kinds of statements,” Branstad said. “I think they’re counterproductive.”

But Branstad clearly indicated 2011 isn’t the time to raise the tax in his view.

“I’ve not advocated that we do it this year,” Branstad said.

Cities are struggling for new ways to fund street work as the money flowing from the state’s Road Use Tax Fund isn’t meeting local needs. Iowa counties are in the same situation with the road fund, which is financed largely through gas taxes and certain licensing fees.

As it stands, Iowans pay 40.4 cents per gallon in state and federal taxes (for regular fuel). The state take is 21 cents per gallon (for regular) and has not been increased since 1989, when gas was about $1.10 a gallon.

Richardson said each penny increase in the tax would generate about $21 million more for the Road Use Tax Fund in Iowa.

She said a new DOT study will be produced soon on needs for Iowa’s roads, but that it’s fair to estimate a current $267 million to $300 million gap in basic services now.

There is discussion of a possible 10 cents-per-gallon increase, and Richardson thinks now is the time to “tee it up” for meaningful debate on a gas-tax hike in the state.

“Our roads have taken a beating,” she said.

State Sen. Steve Kettering, R-Lake View, told a collection of road advocates during a pizza lunch in the capitol cafeteria that he opposes such an increase.

Kettering said the political reality is that an increase in the tax — which he says will have negative trickle-down effects on food and ag-business costs — doesn’t have support in the current session.

So how does the advent of electric cars change the gas-tax situation? Richardson fielded that question from a county official.

When people are driving electric cars you can’t very well fund roads with taxes on gas.

“We need to shift to something else,” Richardson said.

Such as a vehicle mile tax in which GPS in our cars and trucks is used to track how far we drive.

“That seems to be the common suggestion that’s floating around,” Richardson said.

Many vehicles already are equipped with GPS. But how will libertarians and Tea Party types feel about the government tracking their movements?

“There are going to be some privacy issues that people have to overcome,” Richardson said.

That’s an understatement. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.