BOISE - Lawmakers dealt Gov. Butch Otter a one-two punch on his transportation initiative Thursday, with the House killing its last remaining bill to raise the state’s gas tax and the joint budget committee directing a $17 million pot of federal stimulus money to local highway districts, rather than the state Transportation Department.
After the House voted 37-32 against the gas tax bill - which would have raised the tax just two cents a gallon next year - Speaker Lawerence Denney told The Spokesman-Review, “I think the governor has made his case that we do need increased funding, and I think a case has been made here that now is not the time. … Personally, I think we’d all be better served to just give up on it and go home, and if the economy turns around, we can deal with it next session.”
Otter pronounced himself “very disappointed” with what he called an “irresponsible” vote in the House.
“For months now we have made every compromise, addressed every legitimate concern and provided every alternative that opponents wanted,” Otter said in a statement. “Instead of working in the best interest of Idaho, 37 members of the House continue finding new excuses to do nothing. That is irresponsible.”
Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who favored both the gas tax hike and sending stimulus money to ITD to distribute to safety-related road projects around the state, said, “Frankly, I don’t understand it.” Henderson said he’s convinced of both the need for highway improvements, and of the governor’s intention to crack down on ITD operations through new accountability measures set out in a recent executive order.
“That’s going to be enforced - that’s a sledgehammer blow,” Henderson said.
North Idaho House members split down the middle on the gas tax bill, and also split on the distribution of the federal stimulus money. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, sponsored the successful plan to send the full $17.5 million to local highway districts. “I have heard from local jurisdictions that they feel shut out from the current distribution of the stimulus funds,” she told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “The perception from local highway entities is that they’re not being treated fairly.”
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, offered an alternative proposal to divide the money, 60-40, between the state and local highway districts. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, backed Henderson’s proposal, which would let ITD direct the money to projects on either state or local roads, wherever there are safety concerns. The Eskridge-Broadsword proposal was killed on a 6-14 vote, and then the Keough plan carried, 11-9, blocking the Henderson plan from coming up for a vote.
“I was out to save people’s lives,” Henderson said. “I’m not unhappy that the locals got it, because they’ll use it well. I know those people.”
The House debate was contentious. Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, said, “This doesn’t build highways - this tries to fix highways that we already have. … We need to maintain our roads.”
The bill, HB 135a, would have raised $10.6 million for ITD next year, plus $7 million for local highway districts. That’s about a dollar a month for the average driver, “pretty piddly,” Smith said. But he noted that it also created a maintenance fund and required ITD to have a new maintenance management system in place. Plus, the House has defeated all amendments to make the increase bigger.
“I would urge your support for this piddly little bill,” Smith told the House.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, strongly urged the House to reject the proposed gas tax increase. “This debate has lost some perspective,” he said. “We keep talking about our roads going into disrepair. … This legislature is being accused of not taking care of our roads, and that is entirely inaccurate.”
Labrador said Idaho is spending hundreds of millions on roads, between the ITD budget, highway bonds and federal stimulus money. He said some of those millions should be going into road maintenance.
“It’s not the time to raise our people’s taxes just because we do not have the will to find the money … that’s not being used for maintenance and preservation of our roads,” he said. “Maybe we need to look at the way we’re spending money on new roads better.”
Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, spoke out against any tax increase, saying, “Once again the government … is ready to throw a drowning man a brick.”
Lawmakers are hoping to finish their session by next Friday, but the impasse over transportation funding could extend that.
Denney said, “If the governor wants to take another shot at it, I suspect he has ways of making us stay around to do that.”