Idaho State Controller Donna Jones announced today that the state has a $247 million budget surplus – and she thinks that money should be spent to fix roads, rather than Gov. Butch Otter’s idea of a $200 million a year tax increase. “As a former legislator, seeing a surplus of this magnitude brings two thoughts to mind,” Jones said in a news release. “First, taxes are too high on Idaho’s families. Second, instead of looking at raising taxes to pay for road and bridge repair, the Legislature could potentially use $200 million of this surplus to tackle Idaho’s backlog of road repairs.”
Otter in recent weeks has openly acknowledged what his state Transportation Department has long been warning of – that Idaho’s need for road maintenance and repairs is seriously outstripping the available revenue, leaving the state with clogged, deteriorating and unsafe highways. “I feel obligated right now to step up forward and say, ‘Folks, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to have it,’” Otter told the Idaho Statesman earlier this month. “I think we’ve got to prepare the environment, and when folks say, ‘I’m sick and tired of paying taxes,’ well, folks, I’m sick and tired of paying taxes. But we’ve got to look to the need. We’ve got to look to the economy.”
The state transportation department, based on a series of studies, is predicting a $6.1 billion shortfall in highway funding over the next 30 years. The shortfall comes partly because of a decline in federal funding, partly from rising costs, and partly because revenues from Idaho’s 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax – the state’s main source for funding road repairs and improvements – have long been flat, as vehicle fuel efficiency has risen. State transportation officials have identified a $200 million gap between available funding and transportation needs each year in Idaho. The department called this year for major tax increases to fund everything from pothole patching to expanding crowded highways. The package included 75 percent hikes in vehicle registration and permit fees, a 7 percent surcharge on gas, new development impact fees, fees on rental cars and more. The legislation was introduced, but went nowhere – but Otter’s been making it clear that he’s heard the message, and it’s shaping up to be a major issue for next year’s legislative session. Though Idaho is the third fastest growing state, the money it generates for its transportation needs has barely grown in the last decade.