ISP: Cut would mean no more highway patrol

Lt. Col. Kevin Johnson, deputy director of the Idaho State Police, addresses a legislative task force on Tuesday. Johnson said if ISP must absorb the loss of gas tax funds it faces in a year,
Lt. Col. Kevin Johnson, deputy director of the Idaho State Police, addresses a legislative task force on Tuesday. Johnson said if ISP must absorb the loss of gas tax funds it faces in a year, "We would essentially not be patrolling the highways." (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - If the Idaho State Police had to absorb the loss of all its gas tax funding a year from tomorrow, it wouldn’t have anyone left to patrol the state’s roads, police officials told lawmakers today.

ISP Lt. Col. Kevin Johnson, the agency’s deputy director, said the loss of gas taxes would force ISP to lay off 204 people, including 123 troopers plus numerous officers and dispatch personnel. “We would essentially not be patrolling the highways,” he told a task force of state legislators charged with coming up with a way to replace the funds.

Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers this year reached a session-ending deal in May to shift gas tax funds away from ISP and the state parks department on July 1, 2010, to boost state road maintenance funding. The task force was appointed to find replacement money - if it fails, the state could dip into its general fund, but that’s the already pinched main funding source for schools, prisons, and most other state agencies.

The state police had a bevy of suggestions for the task force to make up the funding gap, focusing on new fees, taxes and surcharges on everything from new car purchases to vehicle registration fees to tires and batteries.

But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, a leading opponent of Otter’s proposed gas tax and fee increases this year to fund road work, said, “Right now it seems like the only solution is a tax increase, and I suspect that’s not going to pass in the House. So I would like to see us be more broad.”

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, responded, “It does have to pass both the House and the Senate. That’s partly why we’re into this pickle.” Cameron added later, “We’re here, in part, because of the House’s intransigence.”

Labrador said he favors cutting the state budget instead. “Government has grown over 100 percent in 10 years - I cannot believe that there’s something we cannot cut,” he said.

Idaho lawmakers already cut the state budget this year, amid falling tax revenues; the cutbacks included the first-ever cut in state funding for public schools.

Cameron, who chairs the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said, “Guess what - I think we’re going to be faced with making additional reductions, without this problem.” If the ISP and parks funding shift hits the state’s general fund on top of its other woes, Cameron said, “You’re going to be dramatically cutting public schools, and that’s not a place I’m willing to go.”

He added, “I don’t think for a minute that we’re doing our job by reducing state police by 204 officers. So the just-cut option is not a viable alternative.”

ISP now gets roughly $17 million a year from gas taxes, which are constitutionally required to go to the “construction, repair, maintenance and traffic supervision” of the state’s highways. That’s nearly half its total budget. ISP spends all its gas tax money on highway patrol. The agency’s other functions, including investigations, drug enforcement, criminal identification, forensics, the state sex offender registry and alcohol beverage control, operate with a mix of other funds. Patrol operations also are partly funded by a $3 vehicle registration fee enacted in 2006 specifically to fund career ladder and pay enhancements aimed at reducing turnover among state police officers.

The parks money reflects an estimate of gas taxes paid on gas used in boats, snowmobiles and off-highway vehicles, and goes to various recreational trail programs. Off-road enthusiasts attending Tuesday’s meeting urged the lawmakers not to gut the trail programs.

The legislative task force will meet again in August; members said they hope to come up with a resolution by November.

The ISP already is stretched thin patrolling the state’s roads, Johnson said. “Mostly, we’re covering the highways right now from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m.”

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