BOISE - An Idaho legislative task force is now leaning heavily toward undoing an unpopular law passed this year to raid recreational trail funding in order to shift the money to road repairs.
“We may need to give the gas tax back to the recreationists and look for other funding,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, as the joint task force wrapped up an all-day meeting on Tuesday.
On July 1, 2010, all gas tax money that goes to the state Parks and Recreation Department for trails and to the Idaho State Police for highway patrol will shift to the Transportation Department for road work. The legislative task force was set up to identify alternative funding for parks and ISP.
But overwhelming public testimony at both of the panel’s meetings so far has opposed the shift of the trail money, which now directs the taxes on gas burned in boats, off-road vehicles and snowmobiles to various trail programs, rather than to roads. A small portion also funds search and rescue. Before the program was put in place in the early 1970s, those off-road users got refunds from the state for taxes they paid on gas that wasn’t burned on the roads.
“It’s a program that they have had for a long time, it’s a program that’s a model for national legislation,” Labrador told the other lawmakers on the panel. “I think we acted too hastily at the end of the session and we should consider just giving that money back.”
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, also praised the trail funding program, after hearing from the state Tax Commission about administrative headaches involved with other alternatives - and with the previous refund program.
“It seems like where we were with off-road vehicles and the gas tax that wasn’t going on the roads, it was going on the trails, was a pretty good place to be,” she said. “It was easy to administer.”
Parks stand to lose about $4.5 million in trail funding.
Clark Collins, founder of the BlueRibbon Coalition and president of the Gem State ATV Association, told the lawmakers that money “wouldn’t really buy a lot of miles of highway, but it buys a lot of miles of trails and trail improvements. It’s a significant benefit to Idaho’s trails, and we really want to see it going back to that purpose.”
ISP stands to lose about $17 million; lawmakers on the panel said they hope to come up with different fees or taxes to make up that funding.
Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said that seems warranted for ISP, but he favors restoring the trail money. “I think that’s going to have to be on the table,” he said. “It just makes so much sense.”
As for road repairs, he said, “We need to fund that somewhere else.”
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who co-chairs the task force with Bell, urged caution. “Reversing the direction may be the more politically expedient response, but I’m not sure if that’s the correct response,” he said. “By reversing it, do we really solve anything? We have to find additional funding for transportation.”
Labrador said he could write legislation to shift, say, $25 million a year in sales taxes paid on auto-related items to road work. But that money now goes into the state’s general fund, and the panel heard bad news about the tax revenues that supply the general fund - they were down $95 million below estimates at the end of the last fiscal year on July 1, and further shortfalls could drain the state’s remaining reserves over the course of the coming year. Plus, Idaho’s Medicaid program is facing a $20 million shortfall due to rising caseloads.
Hammond said, “It confirms that access to the general fund is not the answer.”
Other states have tried a variety of approaches to fund their state police, the legislators heard. Ohio formed a task force that recommended various fee increases, and then approved a $93 million a year fee-hike package. Oregon considered everything from increased beer and wine taxes to car insurance surcharges for state police funding, but never approved anything; they use state general funds. Pennsylvania is looking at charging cities fees for state police services.
Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee told the panel, “What I found is this patchwork approach, this reluctance to do large increases in the gas tax or registration fees.” As of 2007, he said, fewer than a third of states had raised their gas tax in the past decade.
Lawmakers for the past two years have rejected Gov. Butch Otter’s bid to raise gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to fund more road work.
The legislative task force will meet again in September.