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Otter to work for road funding consensus

BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter, after failing spectacularly last session to persuade state lawmakers to take on his No. 1 priority – alleviating a huge annual road funding shortfall – is trying a different approach for next year, launching a statewide road show to seek support.

Otter’s chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, and key aide Clete Edmunson gathered a group of more than 40, nearly half of them legislators, in Boise on Monday to seek their input on a series of public meetings around the state this summer to highlight Idaho’s transportation crisis. State officials have identified a $240 million annual shortfall in funding for basic road and bridge construction and maintenance and say it must be addressed, whether that’s through increased gas taxes, registration fees or other measures.

After the public meetings, Edmunson and Kreizenbeck will travel the state and meet with every legislator, then develop legislation in the fall, again gather input and present it for consideration in January.

The issue is Otter’s top priority for next year’s legislative session; it was his top priority in this year’s session as well. In February the governor surprised lawmakers by proposing a flat $150-per-car vehicle registration fee – in a state where some owners pay $30 a year. A few weeks later, after sharp criticism, he withdrew his proposal, saying he’d no longer provide lawmakers with “political cover.”

Then, when legislators proposed a more modest package of fee increases for road improvements, Otter rejected it, accusing the legislature of “a shortage of vision and political will.”

This time around, he’s sounding more conciliatory.

Edmunson said the governor’s staff held a three-hour meeting with legislative leaders before Monday’s briefing and plans briefings in the coming weeks for road construction industry representatives, lobbying groups, local government officials and others.

He told the assembled legislators, state agency heads, reporters and others that Otter is no longer looking to make up the entire $240 million annual backlog in road funding in one fell swoop. “We’re talking about a gradual buildup – we’re not talking about $240 million next year,” he said. “This is a problem that faces all Idahoans, no matter what party. … We all rely on good roads. That is a proper role of government.”

Otter didn’t appear at Monday’s briefing, but in a video that will be shown at the meetings the governor said, “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better, unless we act now to address those needs.” Idaho’s deteriorating roads and bridges threaten the economy and public safety, the governor said. “I hope you come away as convinced as I am that the time is now for us to act to build roads, to build bridges, and most of all to build consensus.”

House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “It’s a far cry from the last session and the fumbled attempts there to show the need. I think it’s a valid approach. … I was pleased that they are planning to come around throughout the state and even talk to each legislator. … I have to commend the governor for this change in course. This is probably going to be the No. 1 issue next session.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “I think this is the right thing to do. There’s still a lot of people out there who say, ‘I see the need, but we can’t afford it.’ What happens if that’s the answer we get?”

State Transportation Director Pamela Lowe told the crowd that one in five miles of Idaho roadway has deficient pavement, and that number is rising. Half of Idaho’s bridges are nearing the end of their lifespans, and traffic counts are rising fast. Yet the state’s flat, 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax hasn’t increased since 1996, and its car registration fees haven’t been raised to fund road improvements since 1997.

Within three years, Lowe warned, Idaho won’t have enough state money to match the federal funds it receives for highway construction, and the state will fall further behind.

Denney said he’s personally convinced. “I think the need is there,” he said. “But whether or not it’s politically doable, I don’t know.”

Said Edmunson, “We want to do it right this year – we want to have a good game plan. … We’re asking you to work with us to make that tough vote, because it’s going to be a tough vote, but it’s going to be the right vote.”

The public meetings will kick off in Caldwell on July 14, followed by Coeur d’Alene July 16, Lewiston July 17, Idaho Falls July 22, Pocatello July 23 and Twin Falls and Boise in August.