Transportation funding hits House roadblock
Debate shows that even a small gas tax increase is contentious
BOISE – Amid hours of debate in the Idaho House on Tuesday, every one of the amendments to expand a proposed 2-cent gas tax increase next year failed – dealing another blow to Gov. Butch Otter’s push to increase funding to fix Idaho’s deteriorating roads.
“For the last two years we’ve done nothing. Let’s do something that’s at least meaningful enough to be counted,” state Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, urged the House, pushing for a 5-cent increase to Idaho’s 25-cent per gallon gas tax next year. His proposal, he said, would cost the average Idaho driver about $2.50 a month. “That’s an ice cream cone if you only have a single dip.”
But opposition was hot, led by Coeur d’Alene GOP Rep. Bob Nonini. Nonini was incensed by a suggestion from Smith that taxpayers wouldn’t even notice the extra nickel per gallon.
“That’s a heck of a reason to support a tax increase, because we think we can fool our constituents and they won’t notice it,” Nonini said. “I’m tired of throwing good money after bad. The ITD needs to get its house in order.”
Nonini called the Idaho Transportation Department “dysfunctional,” and said a drive up U.S. Highway 95 from Boise to Coeur d’Alene last weekend showed him Idaho’s roads aren’t bad at all.
State Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, spoke out in favor of the 5-cent boost. “It would provide significant new revenue to the department that they badly need,” he told the House. He added that Otter’s recent executive order imposing new accountability measures on ITD would prevent the department from spending any of the new money unless it meets specific performance goals.
Nonini, however, decried the executive order, calling it merely a “sales technique” from the governor to get the bill passed, and “not worth the piece of paper it was printed on.”
After the House defeated that amendment, Nonini opposed a 4-cent hike, then spoke out against another one to phase in a 4-cent increase over two years. “This time the $17.6 million is spread out over two years instead of one, but it’s the same tax increase to our constituents,” he said. “Is now the time to give them more dollars before they get their house in order?”
That earned him a reprimand from House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who was presiding over the House. Bedke cautioned Nonini of the “need to be respectful.”
Four other amendments also failed. One, from House Democrats, sought to add local-option tax authority to the bill. State Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, said lawmakers are willing to “vote to tax our folks, and yet we’re not willing to give our folks the ability to tax themselves. … It seems to me that it’s much more democratic.”
A Democratic proposal to provide some funding to regional transit authorities also failed, as did one to add an “economic trigger” to impose the gas tax increase only after Idaho’s economy has improved. “At that time, an increase would be appropriate,” argued state Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise.
A proposal from Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, to adjust the percentages in the bill to match the current funding split between the state and local highway districts also failed, though Wills said Otter favored that change. The only amendment to pass, out of eight that were proposed, was a minor wording change.
House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said afterward that he thought the debate showed that even the 2-cent gas tax increase may not pass the House.
Otter still was holding out hope for something more. He told reporters Tuesday morning, “It’s my hope that we’d be looking further down the road than 2 cents will get us.”
After the House session, Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “We’re still hopeful that we can impress upon those lawmakers that are willing to listen that this is a problem that won’t go away. We remain engaged.”
Henderson said, “It’s going to force a serious conversation, so we can go home, so we can satisfy the minimum needs of the department. The expenditure constraints are in place.”
Lawmakers would like to finish their session, but transportation is the main issue standing in the way. Today is the 80th day of the legislative session; last year’s session ended on its 82nd day, but with Tuesday’s failure to reach a transportation compromise in the House, lawmakers are resigned to continuing.