Legislators reject fuel-tax increase

FRIDAY, MARCH 20, 2009

Governor says he’ll keep working for road funding

BOISE – The Idaho House has killed Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to raise the state’s gas tax to fund more road work, dealing the governor a surprisingly strong 27-43 defeat.

Otter declared that he’s “not giving up,” while stunned backers said they hope the governor will come up with a plan that will clear the House.

“I’ll continue to work with the governor’s office to see if there’s another proposal that would be acceptable, because the problem is not going to go away,” said Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “We’re still at a funding crisis in transportation here in Idaho.”

HB 246 called for an increase in Idaho’s 25-cent-per-gallon gas tax of 3 cents next year, and 2 more cents in each of the two following years. It would have raised $61.6 million a year more for road work once it was fully phased in.

“I was surprised – I thought it’d be really close,” said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, who was undecided on the eve of the vote but backed the measure Thursday. He told the House that North Idaho roads need to be cleared of snow in bad weather, the kind of basic maintenance that’s slipping due to lack of funding.

“It is above all else a safety issue,” Eskridge said.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said he’s heard support from people in the construction business who would benefit from more road work, but the rest of his constituents don’t want their taxes raised.

“It’s actually never the right time to raise taxes, but especially at this time when our constituents are struggling,” he said.

State Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett, R-Challis, said, “I oppose a tax hike, not in any amount and not for any reason.”

North Idaho House members split down the middle on the bill. Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, told the House that unemployment is too high in his North Idaho district for a tax increase.

“It’s tough for me to kick somebody with a tax when they’re already down,” he said.

Harwood said he expected the measure to “go down, but I didn’t think it would go that bad.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, was one of just three House Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. But she also called for avoiding cuts in education funding.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, supported the bill, arguing an executive order Otter issued on the eve of the vote promises greater accountability from ITD.

“If they don’t do what they said they would do, they can’t request spending authority,” Henderson said. “It’s significant.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said after the vote that he thought the gas tax bill had stood a better chance in the House than Otter’s other main transportation funding proposal, a new version of a car registration fee increase, but added, “I could be wrong.”

Jason Kreizenbeck, Otter’s chief of staff, said the new registration fee bill includes a concept developed by Henderson.

Like the earlier version, the new bill would raise heavy-truck registration fees by 5 percent, and the governor says he’d convene a task force to study how truck fees should change further. For cars and light trucks, the new bill would create three categories of trucks – grouped by age – rather than five.

That’s a concept Henderson has been promoting.

By the third year, at full implementation, the bill would raise $31.6 million from increased fees, down from $33.4 million in the previous bill. Owners of new cars would pay 37.5 percent more than they do now in registration fees, while owners of the oldest cars – those more than eight years old – would pay 75 percent more. Both increases are $18.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or For more news from Boise go to

Click here to comment on this story »