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Idaho lawmakers reach deal on transportation funding

Wed., May 6, 2009, 4:30 p.m.

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers reached a tentative transportation funding deal Wednesday afternoon, on the 115th day of their second-longest-ever legislative session.

The deal appears likely to clear the way for the session to adjourn Thursday - two days short of the 118-day record - even though it wouldn’t raise the state’s gas tax, as Gov. Butch Otter had demanded, and it leaves funding sources for the state’s big annual shortfall in road maintenance uncertain.

“Nobody likes it, but it’s a place that they think they can come down,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

Overall, the plan is estimated to raise an additional $54 million a year for roadwork, starting two years out in fiscal year 2011. But a large chunk of that amount - $21.2 million - would come from shifting funding for the Idaho State Police and the state Parks and Recreation Department off the highway fund. A task force would have to come up with a new funding source for those two agencies by the start of next year’s legislative session, or the money would come from the state’s general fund.

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think it’s patchwork - I don’t like the potential implications for the general fund.” That’s the state’s main fund that pays for schools, Health and Welfare, prisons and other basic needs. Said Sayler, “We’ve already hit the general fund.”

Just this week, both houses passed a major election consolidation bill that will take $4.1 million a year from the general fund starting in fiscal year 2011. Plus, the general fund has been so pinched for revenue this year that lawmakers have set their first-ever budget that cuts public schools below the level of state funding they received this year.

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, however, said he’s “very satisfied” with the session-ending transportation deal. “I’m pleased that everyone is ready to make reasonable compromises,” he said. “We accomplished some goals and some funding that I didn’t think we could do - creative heads got it done.”

The deal calls for immediately passing four funding bills to raise an estimated $33 million more for road work next year. They include raising Department of Motor Vehicle fees by $13.1 million and eliminating an ethanol exemption from the gas tax, which backers hope will save the state $16 million a year for road work. Two other, smaller proposals would sell logo license plates to interstate truckers, possibly raising as much as $2.5 million a year, and cap the current self-issued temporary trip permits for truckers to three per operator, saving $1 million a year.

Otter has been holding out for at least $75 million a year more for road work, after starting the session demanding $200 million or more. The deal calls for sending all the new money to the Idaho Transportation Department for state road work, rather than using the usual distribution formula, which sends 38 percent of highway funds to local highway districts, cities and counties. They wouldn’t get any of the new money.

That means ITD would get roughly the amount it would have received from a six-cent gas tax increase with the funds running through the formula.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “It gives the certainty that the governor’s asking for.”

Said Cameron, “We’re nervous about the potential impact on the general fund down the road, and pushing off some difficult decisions. At the same time, we’re all frustrated and cantankerous. This will allow us to get out of here and maybe think more clearly about a permanent solution.”

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