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Idaho parks, police keep money for now

Wed., Sept. 30, 2009, midnight

Legislators delay shifts to transportation funding

BOISE – That plan to shift gas tax money away from Idaho’s parks department and state police and spend it on roads instead? Forget about it – at least for another year.

That’s what lawmakers on a special joint legislative task force decided Tuesday, after hours of hearings that stretched through the summer designed to pinpoint alternative funding for the two state agencies.

“I wish we had a more concrete answer, but we don’t,” said task force Co-Chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

The task force decided unanimously to delay the shifts – a key piece of a legislative session-ending compromise this year between Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature – until July 1, 2011. It also to declared its intent is to permanently reverse the decision to take the gas tax money away from parks.

Lawmakers said they were comfortable with the delay for two reasons: One, the Idaho Transportation Department has saved millions this year because bids for highway contracts are coming in lower than expected; and two, the governor’s transportation funding task force is just starting its work and will work through the next year.

“We do have some breathing room,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls.

Off-road recreationists from around the state, including boaters, snowmobilers and ATV riders, deluged the task force with pleas not to take away the 3 percent of Idaho’s gas taxes that goes to state parks for trails and waterways improvements. That money was designated for parks in a 1972 deal to make up for taxes paid on gas used off-road.

“We have all learned that we made a mistake here,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle.

Off-road recreation advocate Sandra Mitchell said she “reluctantly” supported the one-year delay. “We do believe that it is wise to wait,” she told the lawmakers. “We trust … that you are going to do the right thing, and the right thing is to give us back our gas tax.”

Mitchell also said she trusted that the lawmakers would be re-elected – every seat in the Legislature is up for election in 2010’s general election.

Idaho’s parks stood to lose nearly $4.3 million and 10 positions next July 1 if lawmakers had taken no action. For the state police, the potential loss was more than $15 million.

“This is an area where we need a revenue stream – we need a dedicated revenue stream,” Bell said, “and again, we’re treading right into the governor’s task force.” Lawmakers on the panel could pick a new funding source for ISP, she said, but it could clash with what that task force decides to do.

The panel looked at an array of proposals for ISP funding, including a $1 monthly surcharge on car insurance, which would raise $19.4 million a year, and a $3 fee on tire sales, to raise $4.8 million a year.

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