There was a full house this afternoon for the Senate committee hearing on the tribal fuel tax bill, HB 249. But the committee barely had time to take testimony; it put off its debate and vote to tomorrow, in part because several committee members were gone for much of the testimony, presenting bills in other committees. “Our apologies,” Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Vice Chairman Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, told the crowd. “Both the House and the Senate, we’re on a very tight time schedule. … We’re going to try to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to have their say.”
Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the panel that tribes promised last year to negotiate with the governor over fuel taxes, and just because the state’s had three governors since then is no excuse for not having reached agreements. The bill sets a cutoff date of Dec. 1 – if tribes and the governor haven’t reached agreements by then, the tribes lose and the state imposes its state gas tax on reservation fuel sales. “We need the money, we need the tax money to do what we should do to properly take care of our roads,” Wood said.
Tribal representatives told the senators that the tribes need their own fuel tax money to take care of their own roads; some said if the state tries to impose its tax on them, they’ll sue. Several told the committee that it was Gov. Jim Risch who ended negotiations with them after a few meetings last fall, saying he’d run out of time and was turning the issue over to incoming Gov. Butch Otter. Otter has started negotiations, but some tribal officials said they’re waiting to hear from him.
Lee Juan Tyler of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said his people are “the first Americans – be proud of us.” He said, “When you take this fuel tax away, it’s going to destroy us. … Enough is enough. Negotiate with us faithfully. What was said here was disrespectful.”
Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “We feel we’re close, but we also don’t like having a bill like this over our heads saying, ‘You have to get this done Dec. 1.’” Allan said the Coeur d’Alenes have serious concerns about details of the bill, and refuted rumors that they’ve dropped their opposition. “The main issue is it does not respect the tribal negotiations with the governor,” he told the committee.
Committee Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who missed most of the testimony, asked petroleum marketers lobbyist and backer of the bill Suzanne Budge Schaefer to come back and “summarize” before the senators debate and vote on the bill tomorrow. The committee then began a hearing on HB 245, the personal property tax elimination bill, but had time for only two people to testify before it, too, was put off to tomorrow.