April 14, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho lawmakers clash over budget, road funding

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, left, and Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, right, share a laugh during a Senate Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday, at which the panel voted to amend two transportation bills to try to add in funding increases.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Idaho state senators united Tuesday to pass a giant budget-balancing bill they hope will wrap up the state’s over-long legislative session, even as House leaders decried the bill as a “slap in the face” to the governor.

Gov. Butch Otter, for his part, applauded a separate move by senators on Tuesday to amend two transportation bills to try to transform them into something like his road funding proposals that have repeatedly failed in the House.

“This might be the way to wrap up the session - these might have potential to be the going-home bills, if they’re adjusted right,” said Jason Kreizenbeck, the governor’s chief of staff, who said Otter was “appreciative” of the Senate’s step on transportation.

The moves came on the 92nd day of Idaho’s legislative session, which now has stretched into the fourth-longest session in state history. On Wednesday, the session will tie with 2006 as the third-longest, and if lawmakers are still at it after Friday - as now seems likely - they’ll surpass the second-longest session, which was back in 1983. Idaho’s longest-ever session was in 2003, when lawmakers reluctantly and temporarily raised the state’s sales tax.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, praised the budget bill that won 34-1 support in the Senate on Tuesday as “a fair compromise.” It eliminates a proposed across-the-board 3 percent pay cut for state employees, instead letting state agency directors decide how to implement cuts in personnel funding, as the governor preferred. At the same time, the bill “backfills” each state agency’s budget with enough money from the federal economic stimulus to reduce statewide personnel funding cuts from 5 percent to 3 percent, even though state general funds for personnel still would be reduced by 5 percent.

The measure also includes $17 million from the federal stimulus for local highway districts, cities and counties to spend on local roads; a $30 million transfer from the state’s budget reserve fund to balance next year’s budget; funding from the stimulus for water projects and an education broadband network; and “tools” to allow the governor to tap two state reserve funds if state revenues continue to fall after lawmakers leave town this spring.

“I think it was a good way to kind of sew things up and finish our budgeting so we could go home,” said Hammond, who serves on the joint budget committee that crafted the bill.

However, the joint committee passed it without the support of any of its House Republican members, and House GOP leaders were steaming Tuesday as the bill passed the Senate.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “The governor has made it clear he’s not going to sign a lot of the bill.” Moyle said he wished the Senate had broken the giant bill up into pieces - but instead, it did the opposite, not only pasting all the pieces together, but adding a “non-severability” clause stating that if the governor uses his line-item veto on any piece of the bill, the whole bill dies.

“That’s nothing more than a slap in the face,” Moyle declared. “It sets us up for a stalemate, and I would much rather see us come up with a compromise, so we can get it passed.”

House GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said House Republicans want 5 percent cuts in personnel funding, instead of 3 percent.

However, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said most of his caucus supports the Senate bill.

Senators have pointed to the House’s intransigence on transportation funding. The House has killed repeated tries at increasing the state’s 25-cent per gallon gas tax to fund more road maintenance, something Otter has made a top priority this year. Otter’s proposals to raise vehicle registration fees for the same purpose never made it out of committee in the House.

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “It’s time for the Senate to deal with the situation, and we’re dealing with it.”

Earlier, the House passed HB 96, a bill that was a small piece of Otter’s transportation plan that eliminates the gas tax exemption for ethanol, saving the state’s highway fund at least $4.1 million a year. Senators on Tuesday sent the bill to their amending order, along with another measure, SB 1087, a long-stalled measure to increase administrative fees at the Idaho Transportation Department, for everything from titles to driver’s licenses, by $13.1 million. Any senator may now offer amendments to the bills.

“Both of these bills are revenue bills, and I suspect amendments would have to do with funding of Idaho’s infrastructure,” McGee said.

Otter for the past two years has urged increases in gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to cover an estimated $240 million annual road maintenance shortfall. This week, he sent strong signals to lawmakers that he won’t let them end their session until they address transportation.

Asked what would satisfy the governor, Kreizenbeck said, “Something significant that gets us down the road to solving the problem - this is the first step.”

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