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Eye On Boise

Hemming, hawing, and truck registration fees…

The legislative interim committee charged with re-examining truck registration fees in Idaho met again today, after learning that its Nov. 9 decision to just make no recommendation won’t fly. “The reason we do have this meeting is because we do have to make a recommendation,” said Co-Chairman Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian. “No matter what the recommendation is, if we’re going to make some changes, hire a consultant, or even if we don’t want to do anything, there still has to be a recommendation … a letter drafted to leadership.”

The panel was convened in the wake of a 2010 state report that showed truckers are underpaying for their impact on Idaho roads, while motorists are overpaying.

After much hemming and hawing this afternoon, Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, moved to pursue extending the committee for another year, and to consider hiring a consultant to “do due diligence on fair rates for trucks.” Last summer, the interim committee issued a request for information, and heard a presentation from a consulting firm in response to the RFI that was interested in studying the issue for the panel; however, the committee took no action to hire the firm.

Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa, said, “I’m comfortable asking to reauthorize the interim committee. I’m not necessarily comfortable asking to hire a consultant at this point. … I think there’s still enough questions as far as what we would want that consultant to do, that would necessitate further study. … At this point, I’m not sure what we’re asking for from them.”

After discussion, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, clarified that the motion would be to “ask that we reauthorize this committee, and that the new committee would consider retaining a consultant and funding if that happens.”

Brackett called for a voice vote, and after hearing the ayes, moved straight through any possible “nays” to calling the vote as passage. “Rep. Palmer is squirming in his seat,” Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise pointed out.

“It’s all right,” Palmer responded.

Brackett said, “Well, that concludes the meeting. We’ll stand adjourned.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter convened a task force that reported in 2011 that the state needed to spend $262 million more a year just to preserve its roads and bridges as is, and $543 million more a year if it also wanted to make needed improvements for safety and capacity. Since then, lawmakers and the governor have fought about how to approach that goal. Last year, the Legislature approved a bonding plan to add lanes in certain high-priority highway corridors, and a $15 million shift from the state general fund to road work.

In 2015, in a conference committee at the end of a long and bitter legislative session, lawmakers agreed on a 7-cent gas tax hike, increases in vehicle registration fees, and several smaller changes, to raise an additional $94 million a year for road maintenance.

Truck fees weren’t addressed, despite a state-commissioned cost-allocation study, included in the governor’s task force report, that estimated that drivers of passenger cars in Idaho pay 8 percent more than they should, given their impact on roads, while combination trucks pay 14 percent less than they should.

Idaho used to have a “ton-mile” tax for roads, but it was ruled unconstitutional in a 1997 lawsuit filed by trucking companies who charged it was inequitable, so it was repealed.

The 2015 compromise legislation, HB 312, declared that it was the “intent of the Legislature” to impose a new registration fee on commercial trucks to take into account their weight and the distance they travel. The new weight-distance tax would be imposed, the bill said, “on or before Jan. 1, 2019.”

Nothing happened for the next two years. But during the 2017 legislative session, Brackett, the Senate transportation chairman, sponsored a resolution calling for this year’s interim committee to study a weight-distance tax.

The panel, co-chaired by Brackett and Palmer, the House transportation chairman, began meeting in August, and held its last meeting in November. At the August meeting, Brackett said the sense of the committee was that they didn’t want to consider anything that might raise revenue – any proposal would have to be “revenue-neutral.”

“This system by itself is complicated enough that we didn’t need to throw in an additional item to look at,” like raising revenue, said Rep. Jason Monks, R-Caldwell.

Palmer said research presented to the committee showed Idaho’s truck registration fees already are higher than those in most states.

The Idaho Transportation Department estimates that with the legislative changes of the past few years, its annual shortfall for roads has dropped from $262 million for maintenance to $156.4 million; and from $543 million for both maintenance and keeping up with safety and capacity needs to $417.1 million.

Scott Wilson, of Texas-based D’Artagnan Consulting, which specializes in user-based transportation revenue solutions, told the panel last summer that Idaho’s current system of taxing trucks “poorly reflects use.” Idaho’s transportation system is set up as a “user-pay” system, where user fees, mainly consisting of fuel taxes and registration fees, largely fund roads, rather than the state’s general fund.

Brackett told the members of the joint panel, before its vote, that the motion was to “ask that we reauthorize this committee, and that the new committee would consider retaining a consultant and funding, if that happens.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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