BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has reduced his demand for a five-year, $174 million boost in transportation funding to a three-year, $130 million plan. In response, a hastily convened House committee swiftly introduced and forwarded two new tax- and fee-increase bills to the full House on Tuesday without hearings.
The move set up a much-watched vote, now scheduled for Thursday, in which every member of Idaho’s House will have to go on record on whether to raise taxes in the midst of a recession to fund repairs to the state’s deteriorating roads, as Otter wants.
Several House Transportation Committee members said they weren’t committing to supporting the governor’s new plan, just to getting it out to the full House for a vote, weeks after the governor first presented his transportation tax plan to lawmakers in January.
State Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said, “We have not compromised yet. … This is a revised plan from the governor’s office, and I think it deserves a full hearing on the full floor. I think we need to vote it up or down.”
State Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, “Because we’re not going to have full hearings on these bills in committee, I think it’s imperative that Idaho citizens contact their legislators” and say how they feel about the proposals.
The two revised bills would:
• Raise Idaho’s 25-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 3 cents next year, and 2 additional cents in each of the two following years, for a total increase of 7 cents by the third year, bringing the tax to 32 cents per gallon. That’s down from Otter’s original proposal for a five-year phase-in of a 10-cent increase. Each penny would raise $8.8 million in revenue for road work.
• Raise car registration fees over the next three years, plus raise truck registration fees by 5 percent and form a task force to look into future rates for truck fees. That measure would raise an additional $18 million next year, $39 million the following year and $43.7 million by the third year.
Jason Kreizenbeck, the governor’s chief of staff, praised lawmakers for quickly introducing the new bills Tuesday and sending them to the full House. “This is an issue the governor’s been talking about the whole time he’s been in office,” he said. “We’ve had several hours of hearings. I think people are well-versed in it and ready to discuss it.”
The House committee earlier held days of hearings on the governor’s earlier proposals, along with several alternatives offered by legislators. The committee never voted on any of the bills, however.
Between the two new bills, a pending bill to eliminate Idaho’s ethanol exemption from the fuel tax, and Otter’s hope to shift Idaho State Police funding off the gas tax and onto the general fund, freeing up millions more for road work, the governor’s revised plan would raise an additional $130 million a year by the third year.
“We’ve attempted to find a compromise between where we were and where the Legislature was,” said Kreizenbeck. Otter originally proposed a five-year phase-in to accomplish a $174 million annual increase in transportation funding.
State Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, complained that the legislative process was being “short-circuited” and lawmakers weren’t being given an opportunity to vote on other alternative proposals.
The House Transportation Committee’s special meeting on the new bills Tuesday morning wasn’t included in legislative agendas posted on the Internet; the committee normally meets in the afternoon. The committee also isn’t one of the few “privileged” committees entitled to introduce bills this late in the session, but Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said House Speaker Lawerence Denney had given the committee special authorization to introduce the bills.
Roberts said he and House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, will carry the governor’s bills in the full House on Thursday. After a closed-door GOP caucus on the issue late Tuesday morning, Roberts said, “This is a tough vote. .. There will be people on both sides of the issue in every district of the state.” He added, “I don’t think there’s a person residing in the state of Idaho that doesn’t understand that these economic times are tough for the people.”
In an open House Democratic caucus held at the same time, some members said the economic times are hitting close to home. House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said his brother’s been laid off, as has another representative’s husband. “Is this a good time to raise taxes on Idaho families? I think the answer is no,” he said.