As the conference committee opened its work this morning, Chairman Bert Brackett asked each member, going around the table, to say “where do you think we should end up to go forward with this issue?”
House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, went first. “I think our vision going forward needs to be to fund transportation at some level in the $100 million range to $120 million, $130 million, somewhere in that range. I think we’re all going to agree that that would be an acceptable number to get to. In the beginning of this we were all looking $262 million. … That’s pretty tough to swallow. ... I think we’ve all come to the realization that that’s not something we can bite off in one year and chew up. I think that we’re making progress. It may not seem like it, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see us turn around in short order this morning and get something figured out.”
Among the other comments: Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, decried what he called “the continued stranglehold … that we have on the House side, that says rather than have a majority of 70 legislators, we need to have a majority of 56 legislators. It makes for a poor package that will have us back here.” He said it also says that lawmakers aren’t here to do what’s right, “that we’re actually here to protect our influence and our power.”
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the root of his concern over using state general funds for transportation is that it is “fraught with danger,” as demonstrated in “what we see happening a little bit in the negotiations. I don’t want to use general funds because I don’t want legislators involved in the process of pushing which roads should be built. I think that’s inapproprate. I think it oversteps our responsibility and oversteps our authority and our duty. And the fear of using general funds is that legislators would be involved.” He said that’s “what I fear is going on now.” Yesterday, he noted, senators agreed to the House proposal for a “surplus eliminator” that would tap general funds for transportation, provided that local high districts could share in the funds the same as the state Transportation Department. Senators suggested the usual 40-60 split, but when House members rejected that, they suggested letting local projects compete along with state ones from a fund for safety-related projects. House members initially accepted that idea, then backed off.
“We thought we had agreement on that, and I hope that we can find out that that is OK,” Cameron said. “But what I fear is that some who want to make sure that their desired roads are fixed first are trying to cut out locals from even being able to participate in that process, and that’s unreasonable to me.”
Brackett said, “There’s some things that I don’t need to say because of what has been said, some things I can’t say and won’t say. But I think it was appropriate that they were said. I just want to say how disappointed I will be if we fail to come up with a solution. No question that we have let people, the state of Idaho down, if we cannot come up with a solution going forward. We all bear the burden of that, there’s no question. It’s unconscionable in my opinion to disregard the safety of our citizens, whether it be on the state system or the local system.”
Palmer then said he thought the conference committee had reached an impasse on HB 312a, and should look at other House-passed ideas, including the Senate-rejected HB 311, the tax-shift plan that includes lowering top income tax rates and eliminating the sales tax on food. At the end of his comments, an angry Brackett banged the gavel, declared the committee at ease and left the room.