April 23, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho lawmakers squabble over road funding

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

House GOP leaders talk to members of their caucus as a closed-door caucus breaks up Thursday on a possible transportation funding deal with the governor. From left are House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star; Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnell; and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - House Republicans unveiled a new transportation funding proposal Thursday as Idaho’s legislative session stretched into its 102nd day, but the biggest piece was immediately panned in the Senate and the governor was non-committal.

“I’m encouraged that they’re hatching a plan. Whether this is the plan, I don’t know,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs. “It’s encouraging to see that their creative juices are flowing.”

Gov. Butch Otter met with lawmakers multiple times throughout the day on Thursday, but his press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “I wouldn’t say we have an agreement - we’ve had some productive meetings, we’re still having those meetings.”

The key piece of Otter’s transportation proposal - raising the state’s 25 cent per gallon gas tax to fund a big annual backlog in road maintenance - is missing from the House plan. Asked if the governor would settle for a transportation deal that doesn’t include a gas tax increase, Hanian said, “I’m not going to preclude anything.”

The House GOP proposal has four pieces:

—- Eliminating a gas tax exemption for ethanol. This idea already has passed both houses, but the bill was killed after it was amended. It’s expected to save the state between $4 million and $18 million a year.

—- Raising an array of Department of Motor Vehicle fees that haven’t been raised in decades, to raise $13.1 million a year. A title fee would rise from $8 to $14, a driver’s license fee from $28.50 to $40.

—- Reducing the vehicle-age brackets for car and pickup registration fees from five to three, which would raise the fees for some owners, raising $3.1 million a year.

—- Setting up a mechanism to shift as much as $50 million in state general tax funds to transportation, whenever the state’s revenues increase by a certain amount.

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, estimated the first three pieces of the proposal would raise more than $30 million a year. He and other members of House GOP leadership said they came up with the fund-shift idea after talk of economic “triggers” for a gas tax increase, to delay its start until Idaho’s economy improves.

House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said rather than have economic changes trigger a new tax, they could instead just trigger a deposit off the top of state revenues into the state’s highway fund.

That idea, however, raised immediate objections. “I think it’s a poor idea,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “I think it would pit transportation needs with needs in public schools, health and welfare and corrections. … To add one more drain on the general fund would be very problematic.”

Idaho currently doesn’t use its general tax funds for transportation, relying instead of a combination of gas taxes and vehicle registration fees.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “I think it would be a huge mistake. … I don’t want to be in a position where you’re sacrificing education funding - we’re already short there. I don’t understand where they’ll get the money.”

Broadsword said a 3-cent gas tax hike would only cost the average person $20 a year. “It’s a whole lot less than hitting a pothole and having to pay for alignment on your car,” she said. Broadsword said her constituents have been telling her they prefer a gas tax increase to fund road work. “They feel a fuel tax increase is a user fee, and it’s fair,” she said.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, developed the proposal to change the car registration brackets. But objections to that came because of what his proposal doesn’t include: Any change in registration fees for heavy trucks.

Keith Allred, a former Harvard professor who heads the citizen group The Common Interest, said owners of cars and light trucks would pay 8 percent more under the plan, but owners of heavy trucks would see no increase. “Our suggestion is whatever you do on cars and pickups, do an equal amount or more on heavy trucks,” Allred said. “The best evidence suggests heavy trucks are already underpaying their share (for road maintenance). … With this proposal, car and pickup owners would subsidize heavy truck owners even more.”

News of the new proposal briefly raised hopes that the end of Idaho’s second-longest legislative session in history might be in sight, but it was soon clear that lawmakers still will be in session next week - though numerous legislators now are having to skip days due to longstanding work commitments, trips and other schedule conflicts.

Geddes said he’ll be gone all next week; he’s leaving a stack of “pair slips” to register his votes on key issues. He said, “I hope when I come back, the session is over.”

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