August 14, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Anger over Idaho tax raid reached its target

 

Those raucous town hall meetings that resemble hockey brawls without referees may leave you feeling that elected political figures can’t have a constructive discussion with disgruntled constituents.

Not so.

Consider the welcome change of heart displayed by several Idaho lawmakers over a tax raid they engineered a few months ago to wrap up their marathon 2009 session. They’ve heard clearly from a disapproving public, and some members of a joint legislative task force now admit they might have been hasty.

Hasty and desperate. The bill they crafted in June was an attempt to deal with Idaho’s undisputedly severe highway maintenance needs, but only if they could avoid the onus of raising taxes. As a way out, lawmakers reneged on a deal that goes back to 1972, when recreational vehicle users in the state voluntarily gave up a refund they’d been collecting on gasoline taxes paid for fuel that wasn’t used on state highways.

Their boats, off-road vehicles and snowmobiles weren’t grinding up the asphalt, so they could have just kept pocketing the rebate. But they willingly let the state keep the money and send a sliver of it to the Parks and Recreation Department for trails, boat launches and similar public recreational purposes.

It was a responsible approach, in keeping with the user-fee theory that earmarks gas-tax revenue for transportation programs. The arrangement has worked well for almost four decades, but under the 2009 legislation, it will go away next July when the revenue will be kept by the Transportation Department. Parks and Recreation will be out some $4.5 million.

The nonmonetary damage, however, is to the honor and credibility of the state in the eyes of fair-minded citizens who accepted the responsibility of paying for their own impact on the outdoors.

Indeed, the task force that was assigned to look for ways to replace the parks funding has heard consistently at hearings around the state that the public is not pleased.

The regret some members are voicing signals a chance the damage will be undone before the scheduled effective date. We hope so. Idaho’s highways desperately need attention, but there are better methods than the roundabout approach adopted in haste.

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