House Republican leader makes committee changes to support fuel tax bill

A plan to increase the state fuel tax by 10 cents a gallon gained momentum in the Iowa Legislature Thursday, after the House Republican leader made some key membership changes to a committee to help ensure the legislation passed a procedural hurdle.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen replaced one member of the House Ways and Means Committee, bringing in a lawmaker who supports the bill instead of a member who opposed it. Paulsen also temporarily replaced another committee member so that he himself could cast a yes vote.

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Paulsen said he needed to make sure that "bills the body wants to debate can get to the floor." His moves allowed the bill to pass the House committee in a 13-12 vote Thursday afternoon. The bill also passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee earlier in the day, meaning it could be voted on in both chambers early next week.

Under the plan, the gas tax hike would help pay for roads, providing about $215 million annually for the state's network of bridges and roads, many of which are considered deteriorating.

Similar proposals have failed to advance in past years, but Gov. Terry Branstad and legislative leaders have been vocal this year about raising money for infrastructure. Still, some lawmakers from both parties have reservations about a tax increase.

Paulsen said Thursday that there was majority support among both parties in both chambers. He said the House was "ready to move forward and have a debate." He acknowledged that temporarily sitting on the committee was an unusual move, but said he was just trying to advance the bill.

"It's been about a four-year dialogue. This is where the body is headed," he said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, of Council Bluffs, also expressed optimism for the bill, saying, "We're not there yet. But I think we can get there."

Organizations advocating for construction companies and truck drivers are backing the legislation. But anti-tax groups and an organization speaking on behalf of truck stops have questioned the plan.

Rep. Zack Nunn, R- Bondurant, was the committee member temporarily replaced by Paulsen. He said he opposes the tax increase and will do so during a full vote.

"I remain strongly opposed to a simple gas-tax that I believe will not solve the long-term challenges facing our rural roads and bridges and I intend to vote accordingly on the floor," Nunn said in a statement.

Iowa's fuel tax is now 22 cents per gallon for gasoline, including fees. Diesel fuel has a slightly higher tax and ethanol blends are a bit lower. The tax hasn't been raised since 1989.