October 7, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho road funding about half of what was expected

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Eye on Boise
Follow more Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell on her blog, Eye on Boise.

BOISE - The $54 million transportation funding compromise that ended Idaho’s second-longest legislative session this year has now shrunk to about $28 million, far less than Gov. Butch Otter said was needed right away to keep Idaho’s roads up to par.

First, a joint legislative task force recommended delaying a $21.1 million funding shift from parks and the state police to road work until July of 2011. Now, the other bills that passed this year, from removing an ethanol exemption to creating new truck-trailer plates for out-of-state firms to buy, are bringing in significantly less money than anticipated.

An increase in fees for driver’s licenses, titles and the like is now expected to bring in $11.5 million, instead of $13.1 million, as recession-weary Idahoans opt to renew their licenses and registrations for shorter periods of time. Repeal of the ethanol exemption is raising $15.4 million, about $1 million less than expected. And legislation estimated to raise $5 million a year from new truck-trailer plates is now expected to raise just $500,000; it’s brought in only $105 so far.

“Quite frankly, it just means that we have to take another look at our priorities in terms of transportation funding,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls. “Because obviously, we’re not going to be able to accomplish all that we wanted to accomplish.”

Increasing funding for basic road work across the state - from plowing snow to repairing deteriorated pavement - has been Otter’s top priority for the past two years, but lawmakers have refused to raise gas taxes or vehicle registration fees to accomplish it. Now, Otter’s counting on a task force that’ll spend 18 months looking for long-term solutions - which likely wouldn’t be proposed until after the next election.

Hammond said it might even take longer than that. “Gas tax probably isn’t the long-term solution,” he said, noting that Idaho’s gas tax revenues have long been flat, as people drive less and choose more fuel-efficient vehicles. “Maybe they need even more time to figure out what the long-term solution is, developing a system that’s a user-pay system.”

Otter, whose task force holds its second meeting today, has ordered the panel to report back by Dec. 1, 2010, but he also said he “would welcome the task force’s findings and recommendations as soon as they are ready.”

Said the governor, “The individuals, families and businesses using our highways also are financing them. They deserve real assurance that they are getting what they pay for from our vital transportation corridors. The task force will put some reality behind the rhetoric about maintaining and improving our roads and bridges, and about what it will take to keep our people safe and economically competitive.”

Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “Obviously, when you’re talking about raising these sums of money, there’s a lot of moving parts to it. … That’s the reason he’s given them the amount of time he’s given them to come up with something that’s comprehensive and long-term, and that takes into account all of these other moving parts.”

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, the House minority leader, said, “The compromise had a lot of purposes, and only one of them was to provide transportation funding. It was a way to have various parties save face - we were able to say we didn’t raise taxes, but we were also able to say we got some additional money for transportation. And it also was, frankly, a way for us to end the session and get out of town.”

Rusche said it’s not surprising that the answers may be pushed off until after the November 2010 election, in which both Otter and every seat in the Legislature are up for election. “I don’t expect that there’s the heart in the Legislature and the governor’s office to address a tax increase during a deep recession in an election year, whether it’s a gas tax or another tax,” he said. “I just think that would be pretty difficult.”

Otter this year called on lawmakers to gradually raise gas taxes, car registration fees and make other changes to raise a total of $174.5 million a year more for roads by the fifth year. He settled instead for a plan to raise about $54 million a year more for roads after two years. That’s now down to $28.4 million.

Idaho’s Transportation Department receives no state general funds, instead operating on dedicated state highway funds that come mainly from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees. Those revenues have been flat for years, with the fiscal year 2009 collections, $177.2 million, actually falling below 2001 collections of $177.7 million.

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