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Otter drops plan for road funds

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter on Thursday backed away from his major proposal to lawmakers this year, to raise millions through new fees or taxes to address a giant backlog in road maintenance statewide.

Otter issued a statement saying, “Simply put, there is a shortage of vision and political will within the Legislature to do what needs to be done this year.”

Reaction was mixed among lawmakers, with some disappointed but others celebrating a chance to drop the issue and end their overlong session – with a May 27 primary election looming in which every legislative seat is up for a vote.

Otter had earlier proposed a sharp hike in car registration fees to $150 a year per car, but dropped that proposal after an outcry and called on lawmakers to come up with their own road-funding bills.

Numerous bills have been introduced, including a slate of proposals from House Democrats that would have raised $97 million toward the $200 million a year Otter said was needed. Most attention, however, had been focused on a new bill introduced by the Idaho Transportation Department on Wednesday with backing from the House GOP leadership to raise $68.5 million more a year through a combination of registration fee increases on cars and trucks and a 3-cent-per-gallon hike in Idaho’s 25-cent gas tax.

The bill wasn’t brought up for a vote Thursday in the full House, where GOP leaders said its fate was uncertain. “I don’t know that we’re going to do anything with it,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. “This may not be the year to do it. It’s never a good idea to raise taxes when your economy’s going down.”

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “I admire the governor, but it really does show a lack of engagement and leadership in developing a transportation plan that has legs.”

Otter said in his statement, “I’ve been working hard on this issue ever since I came into office, explaining the statewide needs and the urgency of acting now, developing options and building support. I also have worked with legislators every step of the way. But in the end it’s the relatively narrow focus that goes along with representing an individual district that keeps legislators from acknowledging the challenge of a nearly quarter-billion-dollar statewide transportation infrastructure backlog or embracing any way of addressing it.”

He added, “The problem doesn’t go away with the 59th Legislature. I will continue working with experts and stakeholders alike to develop a long-term solution for the 2009 session.”

Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian, said the $68.5 million plan wasn’t enough. “Sixty-eight million does not fill up a $200 million hole. We’ve been saying all session long that this needs to be taken seriously, and not done piecemeal,” Hanian said. “He’s willing to listen to other proposals, and he’s willing to be persuaded, but so far he hasn’t heard a persuasive argument.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “Even if you can only get a bite of the apple, I think it’s better than going hungry.” Not addressing road funding this year, he said, “puts us that much farther behind next year, and the pavement is not going to stop falling apart between now and then.”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I’m OK with not coming up with additional money (this year), although I recognize we have a need to increase transportation funds. I want to be sure, before I put that obligation on the citizens in Idaho, we’re doing it in a way that’s going to have the best results.”

The Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution Thursday to launch a $550,000 performance evaluation of the Idaho Transportation Department. The measure earlier passed the House unanimously.

“We want to dig into what is happening out at the Department of Transportation so that we all feel more confident when the time comes, and certainly I would argue that the time has arrived, where we’re prepared to ask for more funding for our roads, bridges and infrastructure across the state of Idaho,” said Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell.