Members of Idaho Indian tribes pay gas taxes and vehicle registration fees just like all other citizens, but none of the money comes back to help maintain reservation roads, a southern Idaho legislator said Tuesday.
Sen. Moon Wheeler, R-American Falls, asked a Senate committee to introduce his bill setting aside a small share of the money for roads on reservations. But he weathered a storm of questions from the committee before it reluctantly agreed.
Sen. Robert Lee, R-Rexburg, recalled meeting with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes on an elk management issue.
“I find it difficult to separate the two issues,” he said. “It would be much easier for me to consider the bill if they had been cooperative.”
Wheeler responded, “Senator, I’d just like to say I don’t believe there’s any elk hunting allowed from the road system.”
Other members of the Senate Transportation Committee questioned how Wheeler can be sure the money would be spent on public roads, whether the new money would constitute “double dipping,” and why Wheeler is bringing back an idea that the Legislature has voted down in past years.
After the meeting, Wheeler said, “I thought we were going to talk about the merits of the bill, not about people’s attitudes on gambling, elk hunting, salmon and steelhead fishing, all these other things.”
This is Wheeler’s fourth attempt to bring the issue forward. The first was when he was a county commissioner.
Some roads on reservations have been taken over and maintained by cities, counties or the state, he said. But the rest receive no funding, except for sporadic allocations from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The tribal roads that aren’t open to the public are closed because of grazing issues or because they’re on sacred ground, Wheeler said in response to the committee’s questions. Only roads open to the public would be eligible for the maintenance money.
“It’s the tribes’ position and mine that they ought to be getting some of the money back that their people pay in, and that the non-Indian residents pay in,” he said.
The measure would take $500,000 a year from the Highway Users Account - money collected from the gas tax and registration fees and earmarked for road maintenance - and target it toward road maintenance on reservations.
Last year, Wheeler’s bill never got a hearing. It’s changed substantially from a measure that was defeated two years ago, he said.
The money would be divided among Idaho’s five reservations through a formula taking into account tribal populations and road miles. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe would get $46,200 a year, and the Kootenai Tribe would get $14,700.
More than half the money, $255,550, would go to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, who have the most members and the most road-miles to maintain. Their Fort Hall Reservation is in Wheeler’s district.
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