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Guv campaign rekindles gas tax debate

There’s good reason why Washington plates are such a common sight at Idaho gas stations near the state line in North Idaho - gas is just plain cheaper in Idaho. Among the reasons: Washington’s 37.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax is a full 12.5 cents higher than Idaho’s, which has stood at 25 cents a gallon since 1996.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has spent several years unsuccessfully trying to persuade state lawmakers to raise Idaho’s gas tax to boost funding for road maintenance in the state. Now, as he seeks a second term in office, his Democratic challenger, Keith Allred, is proposing the opposite: He wants to lower the tax to 22 cents per gallon, and up fees on heavy trucks to make up the difference. The debate in Idaho comes as the state’s long-unchanged per-gallon tax, combined with increased fuel efficiency, has led to stagnant funding for roads despite growing traffic. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

A catch in the session-ending transportation funding deal…

More than 30 years ago, Idaho’s boaters, snowmobilers, dirt-bikers and ATV riders made a deal: They’d give up their gas tax refunds for gas burned off-road if the state would direct that tax money to trails, boat launches and the like. It worked. While farmers and log-truck drivers still get refunds for gas taxes paid on gas that actually gets burned off-road, off-road recreationists don’t, but they benefit from $4.8 million a year that goes to waterways improvements, off-road trails, park roads and bridges and search and rescue.

Now, however, a session-ending deal between lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter to divert that gas tax money to road maintenance has the recreationists steamed. “If they want to take that back, then give us the refunds back,” said Tom Crimmins, a Hayden Lake trails consultant and retired forester. And if the state needs more money for road work, he said, it should raise the gas tax. Crimmins spoke out at the last state Parks Board meeting in Boise, and motorized recreation groups around the state are organizing to oppose the funding deal. “There’s going to be some petition drives, we’ll probably have some bumper stickers and buttons,” Crimmins said. And when a special legislative task force starts meeting later this summer to address possible alternative funding sources for parks and for the Idaho State Police, which also would lose millions in gas tax funding a year from now under the deal, “We plan to be there en masse,” Crimmins said.

The recreationists are particularly upset because during this year’s legislative session, they successfully worked to raise their own ATV registration fees from $10 to $12 a year. The increase, which takes effect Jan. 1, will go half to law enforcement, and half to the state Department of Lands, to offset any damage caused by off-road recreation on state lands.

“I think they have a legitimate concern,” said state Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, one of eight members of the special legislative task force. Hammond said when he voted for the road deal, he wasn’t aware of the history behind the trail funding. “At that point in the session, you’re almost willing to vote for anything to get out of there,” he said. “Now we have to face the fact that we have some real issues that we created as a result of that, and we’ve got to fix it. It’s going to be tough.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review; the legislative task force holds its first meeting June 30.

Legislative task force sets first meeting

The eight-member legislative task force that was created this year as part of a session-ending transportation funding deal between Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers has set its first meeting for June 30 at 10 a.m. at the Capitol Annex. The panel is charged with identifying alternative funding sources for the Idaho State Police and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, which are scheduled to lose millions in gas tax funding on July 1, 2010, with that gas tax money to instead shift to road work. Here’s who’s on the legislative panel: It will be co-chaired by Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the two lawmakers who also chair the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Task force members include Sens. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls; and Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello; and Reps. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry; Raul Labrador, R-Eagle; and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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