March 19, 2009 in Idaho

Math problem stumps House

$10 million error leaves state officials balancing road needs and raising taxes
Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer
 

On the Web

A state-funded audit of the Idaho Transportation Department is available online. Go to www.legislature.idaho. gov/ope and click on “Idaho Transportation Department Performance Audit.”

A research report on Idaho road funding prepared by the Common Interest is available at www.thecommoninterest. org/v2/issue-17.aspx.

BOISE – On the eve of a big do-or-die vote on Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation tax package, the governor’s office Wednesday discovered a $10 million math error in its main bill, and a citizens group released a report raising questions about both the need for and fairness of the proposals.

“It’s only been two years of this,” said House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, who said she’s often been frustrated when trying to get numbers from the state Transportation Department. “This really discourages me, because we thought the governor had it the way he wanted it.”

State lawmakers are divided on the governor’s proposals, which are a tough sell because they raise taxes and fees during an economic downturn.

“I’m against them both,” said Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. “It’s the wrong timing: How do you square the stimulus money with raising taxes at this time?”

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said he was undecided. “This is a tough time, but I recognize the condition our roads are in,” he said.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said, “We feel like we’ve spent a lot of time getting to this point. … We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to convince enough lawmakers that we’ll be able to do something substantive.”

But the full House is scheduled to vote this morning on only one of the governor’s two main bills, a modest increase in the state’s gas tax over the next three years. The other bill, raising car and truck registration fees, was pulled back after the last-minute discovery of the $10 million error.

The measure would raise $10 million less than originally thought. Instead of $43.7 million after three years, “The actual figure is closer to $33.4 million after three years,” Hanian said. “It’s unfortunate. They just miscalculated.”

A new version is scheduled to be introduced in the House Ways and Means Committee this morning, but it likely won’t come to a vote until later.

Keith Allred, head of the Common Interest citizens group, said he discovered the math error while researching the bill and alerted the administration. Allred, a former Harvard University professor, also assembled an extensive issue brief, with links to various studies, suggesting that the state’s roads may not be so bad after all, compared to those in other states, that car owners subsidize the damage truckers do to the state’s roads – and that the governor’s bill would exacerbate that imbalance.

“Our roads are in better condition than they’ve been in for most of the last 15 years, they’re in better condition than other states, and we’re in an economic downturn,” Allred said.

When he presented the research findings to his 1,500-member group and polled their response, 63 percent opposed the gas tax increase and 76 percent wanted trucks to pay more if any registration fees are increased.

Under the governor’s registration-fee bill, owners of cars and pickups would see their registration fees go up 40 percent next year and 69 percent over three years; light truck fees would go up 37 percent next year and 61 percent in three years; and heavy truck fees would rise only 5 percent next year.

Otter proposes a task force to look into fees for heavy trucks after the initial 5 percent hike.

“The point of the task force is to weigh all of these issues … to look at some of the perceived inequities,” Hanian said. “We understand that some people have a different view of fairness on this. We’re going to look at that and study it.”

He noted that a state audit released in January backed up Otter’s claim that Idaho needs millions more invested in road maintenance to preserve its deteriorating infrastructure.

“The Legislature’s own audit revealed that we face some serious shortages in what we’re already funding and what the actual need is,” Hanian said.

He noted that Otter held public meetings across the state over the summer to convince Idahoans of the need to address road maintenance.

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who’s carrying the gas tax bill in the House, said, “I think the audit makes a really clear case for increasing revenues right now.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com. For more news from Boise, go to www.spokesman.com/boise.


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