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Idaho legislative session no closer to ending

Fri., April 24, 2009, 5:05 p.m.

Gov. Butch Otter answers questions from reporters after a bill-signing ceremony on Friday. Otter threw cold water on an idea being promoted by House GOP leaders as an alternative to a gas-tax hike - instead imposing a conditional, economically-triggered shift from the state's general fund to pay for road work. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
Gov. Butch Otter answers questions from reporters after a bill-signing ceremony on Friday. Otter threw cold water on an idea being promoted by House GOP leaders as an alternative to a gas-tax hike - instead imposing a conditional, economically-triggered shift from the state's general fund to pay for road work. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - House Republicans introduced yet another transportation bill Friday, but Idaho’s second-longest legislative session ever is no closer to ending.

In a hastily called meeting, the House Ways and Means Committee agreed unanimously to introduce legislation to raise registration fees on heavy trucks next year by roughly 5 percent, which would raise roughly $4 million.

The measure follows a bill introduced a day earlier by Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, for a small increase in car registration fees by adjusting rate brackets, which would raise $3 million for road work. That bill prompted some protests that truck fees should rise, too, if car registration fees go up.

Jim Manion, president of AAA Idaho, which represents motorists, said passing the car registration bill without also charging trucks more would “give a free ride to those who do the most damage.”

But even with the addition of the truck bill, the House GOP plan for transportation funding still would raise less than $35 million next year, without its controversial final piece - a proposal to shift a large chunk of the state’s general fund revenue to transportation if the economy improves.

Gov. Butch Otter threw cold water on that idea Friday, after meeting with House GOP leaders about the proposal.

“Hope springs eternal, and I hope we can come up with something,” Otter said. But, he said, “You have to have certainty in how much money you’re going to have in order to plan for maintenance.” He said he sees two needs for transportation funding: Certainty for future planning, looking two to three years out, and new revenues. The conditional fund-shift proposal offers neither.

Nevertheless, Otter said of the House GOP leadership, “I applaud their efforts to come up with new ideas.”

Some lawmakers have expressed fears that the general-fund shift would eventually force either a tax increase or cuts in key programs like education, and Otter seemed to agree. “If you’re going to take extraordinary amounts of money out of the general fund, then all those agencies that are now funded by the general fund are going to either have to suffer, or you’re going to have to come up with more resources going into the general fund,” Otter told reporters Friday.

The lack of progress on a transportation funding deal spelled long negotiations still ahead in the stalemate that’s pushed Idaho’s legislative session into the record books. The Legislature’s joint budget committee, which had been planning to meet Monday, delayed that meeting indefinitely.

The Senate earlier passed a gas tax increase bill that Otter said would work, but the House killed it. Otter wants the money to address a big backlog in road maintenance. On Friday, House GOP leaders issued a statement saying the governor should “respect the convictions of the majority of House members” who oppose gas tax hikes, and let the session end without them.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “We tried it six times, gas tax, and every one went down. … I think it’s time to go home.”

But Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “If it takes another two weeks or three weeks, I can tell you, I don’t want to be here, but I’m not going to walk away from this.” He said, “Governing by saying, ‘I’m not going to raise the tax’ is the easy way out.”

Earlier in the week, Otter vetoed 35 bills, and promised to veto all budget bills until lawmakers sent him a transportation funding package. Budget bills, key to running state government, must pass - so lawmakers are forced to draft and pass new versions for every one vetoed.

By the end of the week, both houses had stopped passing them, figuring there was no point if they’d just run up against a veto.

Otter has signed some legislation into law in recent days, including a small Fish & Game fee increase for out-of-state hunters and anglers, and three bills he signed Friday dealing with the Swan Falls water agreement in southern Idaho.

When lawmakers reconvene on Monday, it’ll be their 106th day in session. They’re two weeks away from exceeding the record, set in 2003 at 118 days, for the longest legislative session in Idaho history.

House Resources Chairman Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, was leaving the Capitol Annex late Friday morning for a bill-signing ceremony for the water bills, and passed by a group of loudly chanting protesters from a carpenters’ union who’ve been protesting weekly outside the state Capitol renovation project.

“No one’s happy,” Stevenson said ruefully, pointing a thumb back at the annex and then over at the protest. “They’re not happy in there, they’re not happy out here.”


 

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