May 13, 2009 in Opinion

Smart Bombs

Running on empty
By The Spokesman-Review
 

I used to marvel at the unwillingness of Idaho lawmakers to raise the gasoline tax. Roads and bridges deteriorate. Costs perpetually rise. Tourists help pay. It’s the logical answer.

But my sense of wonder has shifted to 1996, which is the last time that levy was raised. Given the hives that break out with the mere mention of the t-word in the Gem State, it strikes me as miraculous.

How did that happen?

In the spring of 1995, Gov. Phil Batt said he would address concerns about the operations of the Idaho Transportation Department before asking for a gas-tax increase. Then, on Jan. 8, 1996, as Batt was addressing the Legislature, he went for it:

“What is wise is not always easy,” he intoned, after asking for a 4-cent bump per gallon in the gas tax and increased auto registration fees. The Spokesman-Review article did not note how many legislators fainted, but one can imagine limp bodies sagging to the floor.

Amazingly, the 4-cent tax was still alive late into the session. The major holdup was increasing fees on truckers based on vehicle weight. Batt told the truckers how important good roads were to them, adding, “We can’t expect to have a relatively low gas tax in this state. I’m kind of an anti-tax guy, but I don’t look at user fees in the same light.”

The gax tax passed and was implemented on April Fool’s Day. Maybe that was the key. Idahoans thought it was a hoax and didn’t notice the difference at the pump, where the price at the time was about $1.20 a gallon.

OK, probably not, since S-R opinion writer D.F. Oliveria called for that tax – and an earlier federal bump of 4.3 cents – to be reversed: “Repeal both gas tax hikes and give us working stiffs a fighting chance at the pumps.”

Guess that scared lawmakers straight, because they haven’t dared touch the tax since. Nor have they found sufficient revenue for road upkeep.

Batt it around. Intentionally or not, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has adopted the Batt playbook in calling for a gas-tax increase.

Signaled his intent early on. Addressed concerns about Transportation Department operations. Noted that paying now is cheaper than paying later. And made sure that everyone knew he doesn’t like taxes but is amenable to fees: “I’m a user pay guy.”

The difference, of course, is that Otter’s plan was almost entirely rejected.

Instead, lawmakers cobbled together a stopgap plan that included shifting money from the general fund. Then they formed two task forces to find revenue sources for the money they diverted to roads. I realize time is money, and Idaho doesn’t have a lot of that to spare, so how about calling off all those boring meetings and following Batt’s lead?

Raise the gas tax.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or at (509) 459-5026.


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