After asking lots of questions, members of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee have signed off on HB 547, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle’s bill to shift cigarette tax funds that now are going to pay off bonds for the state Capitol renovation into water recharge and road work. Under the bill, which earlier passed the House on a 63-4 vote, water and roads would be the top priorities for the newly freed-up funds once the bonds are paid off next year.
Each year, $5 million of the money would fund Idaho Department of Water Resources efforts to recharge depleted aquifers; another $4.7 million would help retire highway construction bonds from the big "Connecting Idaho" debt-for-roads program; and the remaining amount – estimated at $7 million in fiscal year 2016 and $8 million in fiscal year 2017 – would go toward addressing Idaho’s backlog of road work. Moyle said it would provide new ongoing funding both for water and for roads; Norm Semanko of the Idaho Water Users Association, supporting the bill, told the committee, “This is one of the single most important pieces of legislation for water users that we’ve seen in decades – it’s a game-changer for us.”
Moyle’s co-sponsor on the bill is House Speaker Scott Bedke. It needs passage in the full Senate and the governor’s signature to become law. Gov. Butch Otter had proposed shifting the funds to help cover Medicaid costs, but he never introduced legislation along those lines. Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said there are “a lot of good projects out there” toward which the money could have been directed, but that this bill “goes a long way to doing the right thing.”