April 21, 2009 in Idaho

Otter pushes for road funds

Governor’s vetoes compel Idaho senators to pass bill raising gas tax, DMV fees
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

Transportation bill

As amended, the new transportation bill would:

•Eliminate an exemption from the gas tax for ethanol, yielding between $4.1 million and $12 million a year for road work.

•Raise Idaho’s 25 cent per gallon gas tax to 28 cents on July 1, and to 31 cents a year later.

•Raise an array of long-stalled DMV fees in Idaho, including fees for titles (from $8 to $14) and driver’s licenses (from $28.50 to $40 for four years), to raise $13.1 million a year.

BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter vetoed 10 bills Monday, jolting state lawmakers into action on his transportation initiative 99 days into the legislative session.

Six hours after he wielded his big, red “VETO” stamp for the 10th time, the Idaho Senate voted 21-14 in favor of an amended bill that would raise Idaho’s gas tax by 3 cents a gallon next year and another 3 cents the following year, plus raise an array of Department of Motor Vehicle fees and eliminate an ethanol exemption from the gas tax.

“That’s a great bill – that bill is the one,” said Jason Kreizenbeck, Otter’s chief of staff, after the Senate vote, which came at 6:30 p.m. after two hours of debate. All of North Idaho’s senators voted in favor of the bill. All seven Democrats joined seven Senate Republicans in opposition.

If the amended bill, House Bill 96a, were to win in the House, it would raise at least $69 million a year more for state and local road maintenance by the second year out. However, the House already has voted five times on gas tax increase proposals. Every one failed.

“I think the House has spoken. Every time it comes up with the same solution,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly.

Lawmakers from both parties have been reluctant to raise taxes during a recession, though Otter argues the state will pay more later if it doesn’t start maintaining its roads now. He has pushed for increased road funding for two years.

House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said she didn’t think the governor’s tactic would work. “We just did the best we could do,” she said. “We feel like we should’ve had a pat on the back, not be told that we’re irresponsible.”

Otter held a news conference Monday morning in which he vetoed two unrelated bills and threatened to veto eight key budget bills if the House and Senate didn’t pass a transportation funding increase by Wednesday night.

“I’m prepared to stay as long as I have to in order to get some responsible legislation that reflects our transportation revenues,” Otter said. “There is another avenue that we’re exploring right now, and that is a special session the day after they adjourn.”

Lawmakers can’t end their session without passing a budget; if the governor vetoes budget bills, they have to start over and pass new ones.

Just hours later, Otter vetoed the bills, including the budgets for the Idaho State Police, the Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Parks and Recreation.“There’s certainly been some question as to how determined the governor truly was,” Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said. “Now at least we know.”

The Senate declined to try to override the governor’s vetoes, and instead sent the vetoed budget bills back to the joint budget committee to be rewritten. The joint committee will meet this morning to take those up. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, told the Senate that Idaho’s gas tax, the main source of funding for road maintenance, hasn’t been raised since 1996.

“Are we going to wait for another bridge collapse like what happened in Minneapolis?” Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, asked. “We have to bear the responsibility. … I’m not going to turn my back on required maintenance.”

Speaking against the bill, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said no one disputes that Idaho’s roads are deteriorating.

“Now is not the time to be placing an additional burden on struggling Idaho families – it just isn’t the time to do it,” he said.


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