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Lawmakers finalizing transportation deal

They hope to finish near-record session today

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Bills were flying in Boise on Thursday, as Idaho lawmakers pushed hard to wrap up their 116-day legislative session and finalize a transportation funding deal – but they didn’t, and they’ll be back at it this morning.

“I wish that we were there,” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, told colleagues as the hour passed 6 p.m. and there were still committee meetings and debates to go. “I think that we’re going to fall a little short.”

The last-minute lawmaking included the hasty introduction of four new bills on Thursday morning, two of which were found to be flawed and had to be sent back to committee and redone before the day was out.

A House leadership committee that introduced the new bills ended up meeting three separate times on Thursday. By the end of the day, three new transportation bills had passed the House and cleared a Senate committee, and three other measures passed the Senate, with two of those now headed to the governor’s desk.

None raises the state’s gas tax, as Gov. Butch Otter has demanded all session, saying the state has a $240 million annual shortfall in its road maintenance budget. Instead, the package – tentatively agreed to on Wednesday by the House, Senate and Otter to end the state’s second-longest-ever legislative session – raises about $33 million in the next year from a combination of small fee increases and eliminating a tax exemption for ethanol, and pushes off a decision until next year on how to raise another $21.2 million.

To set the clock ticking on that decision, the deal shifts $21.2 million in funding for the Idaho State Police and state parks off the state highway fund on July 1, 2010 – and charges a legislative task force with coming up with replacement money before next year’s session. If they fail, the money would have to come from the state’s general fund, competing with schools, prisons, health programs and more.

Democrats spoke out against the move in the House debate and in the Senate committee, saying the governor proposed long ago to replace the ISP funding to free up money for roads – and lawmakers never did it because they couldn’t find any replacement funding.

“It seems to me reorganizing deck chairs on the Titanic,” declared state Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise.

But state Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired ISP officer, said he’s “very confident” that lawmakers won’t leave the state police to rely on a draw from the general fund to keep operating in future years.

“There are a lot of avenues for user fees,” he said. “I think this is definitely a workable solution.”

Shortly before 7 p.m., the House adjourned for the evening, despite loudly protesting members who wanted to keep pushing on into the night. The Senate followed suit around 7:30.

Both will convene this morning, in hopes of ending their session today – one day short of tying the record for Idaho’s longest-ever legislative session, 118 days in 2003.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or For more news from Boise go to
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