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Iowa Lawmakers to Take on Smoking, Road Construction

Mon March 10, 2008 - Midwest Edition

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) A severe crackdown on smokers and a plan to increase spending on highway construction and maintenance will move to center stage at the Legislature.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, said he’s counting on votes on a proposal already approved by a committee that would impose a statewide ban on indoor smoking.

“In terms of a straight public policy initiative, this is the single biggest thing we could do for public health,” McCarthy said.

Gov. Chet Culver had earlier asked lawmakers to change state law to allow local governments to impose their own smoking restrictions. McCarthy said legislative leaders were headed in that direction when the session convened, but now plans have changed.

“That seemed to have more momentum a couple of months ago,” said McCarthy. “For a whole variety of reasons, since the session started the statewide ban has picked up a lot of support.”

The ban emerged from a House committee with a comfortable margin.

“If we have the votes we’re going to be working on that,” McCarthy said. “The biggest single thing we can do in the state of Iowa to improve our health would be moving to smoke-free.”

Although Culver proposed allowing local governments to impose their own bans, he’s made it clear he would sign a statewide ban into law.

House Minority Leader Chris Rants, R-Sioux City, said a proposed smoking ban isn’t a partisan issue, and he’s told Republicans to listen to their constituents.

“I imagine that will be a hot topic at everybody’s forums,” Rants said. “We’ve asked everybody to ask for some input.”

The measure would exempt casinos and private veterans organization, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, when those facilities are open only to members and not the public.

The highway construction measure also hasn’t broken along partisan lines.

Studies last year showed that the state has an estimated $200 million annual shortfall in funding needed to maintain the highway system. Key lawmakers from both parties have crafted a package that would eventually raise $185 million a year by increasing registration fees on virtually every vehicle in the state.

To ease the sting of a big fee increase, existing vehicles wouldn’t be covered.

“If we can get 51 votes we will take it up as soon as possible,” said House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque.

Highway construction is financed by license and registration fees, and the state’s gasoline tax. With gasoline near $3 a gallon, Gov. Chet Culver has rejected any increases in the state’s gas tax, forcing lawmakers to scramble for other sources of road maintenance money.

Murphy noted that any fee increase would require cooperation from Republicans because Democrats wouldn’t shoulder alone the burden of charging more to motorists in an election year.

“It’s really going to require a bipartisan effort,” said Murphy.

In other issues:

• Lawmakers have already approved a $112 million boost in basic state aid to local schools and now will turn their attention to school curriculum, putting in place a core set of offerings that schools must meet.

“We want to make sure that kids in Iowa have the skills they need,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. “Iowa has not had statewide standards, and we’re the only state that doesn’t. This is the first step toward setting statewide standards.”

• Lawmakers of both parties will continue work to ensure that checks sent out as part of a congressional economic incentive package won’t be subject to state income taxes.

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