Living within our means

Counties across Iowa are having a hard time keeping their roads and bridges up to date. Buena Vista County has more challenges than most with a higher number of paved miles than average. The State of Iowa has a purported shortfall of nearly $250 million because of declining road use tax revenues and increasing maintenance costs.

People are driving less and cars are more efficient. Bigger cars that were lucky to get 20 mpg 10 years ago now notch 42 mpg on the highway. Chevy and Ford have plug-in vehicles, and Ford has a solar-powered car in testing. The problem of road use tax revenues is bound to get worse.

Yet we continue to add paved miles, widen highways and refuse to give up on any dirt road.

Rural counties are losing population but continue to maintain a road system designed for the horse-and-buggy era.

In Pocahontas County, the board of supervisors lusts over wind turbine property tax revenue currently flowing to schools (Pomeroy-Palmer and Newell-Fonda, primarily). In BV County the supervisors are mulling an increase in the property tax levy for roads.

Truth be told, we probably have twice the mileage in roads that we need. Four families do not live on a section these days. We have buried the four-row plow. We have farm tractors that could ford just about any landscape. It’s not as if they need that B-level road.

Iowans do not favor an increase in the fuel tax, polls indicate. Gov. Terry Branstad does not favor an increase. Farm Bureau does. The road construction lobby does. The Hwy. 20 expansion lobby does.

We cannot afford all the roads we have. In the past, we could not afford not to have the web of gravel and asphalt roads leading to every nook and cranny. That road network was necessary to build the world’s most efficient granary. It is not so necessary now, thanks to larger farms and machinery. Road costs become a drain on efficiency in that they levy a tax on roads that are not used but for twice a season.

First, BV County should start to vacate roads. Then people would know that this business about road-use revenues is for real.

We could raise taxes this year and be forced to increase them again in a couple years as fuel consumption falls — hurrah! We will have to come up with new revenue ideas, no doubt. All of them are deeply unpopular, such as toll roads or taxing electric vehicles at a higher rate (a tax on conservation?). The only course open to local counties is to start restricting the road network to what we actually need. That is a discussion that no Iowan wants to have. They would prefer to talk about how nice it is to hop on Hwy. 20 at Early and not see another car until Fort Dodge.

Shared ignorance

Neither side can shoot straight. That’s why we still don’t have a farm bill. First, the Republicans in the House held up passage of a farm bill for two years over an unrealistic demand to cut $40 billion in spending on food stamps. House and Senate negotiators knocked that number down to $9 million. So it appeared that the main legitimate sticking point had been cleared.

Not so fast. Last week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R, Okla., reported that the farm bill probably will not pass in January as he had hoped. (The last farm bill expired Dec. 31.) That’s because the ranking member of the committee, Rep. Colin Peterson, D-Minn., insisted on a boost to the dairy program that House Speaker John Boehner has been running against for 23 years.

Peterson’s move stalled the farm bill yet again.

Good thing Peterson is a congress critter and not a brain surgeon.

This thing was done until the Minnesotan mucked it up. Sure, everyone had to hold his nose while agreeing. But we need a farm bill for rural housing, sewer and water programs, a safety net for corn and cotton growers, a strong dairy program and, yes, nutrition programs for children, the poor and elderly.

Peterson was never one to listen much to his own caucus in the name of getting something done. He gave former Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, fits over the previous two farm bills. It’s because Peterson, like so many Tea Party radicals, thinks of his own interests as being more important than those of the USA. Throw him out with Steve King and the nation will be better off.