BOISE – Frustrated lawmakers ended Idaho’s second-longest legislative session Friday with lukewarm support for a transportation compromise that pushes the big decisions off to next year.
“I think we could’ve gotten all this done much quicker,” said state Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake. “I don’t like the gamesmanship. … All the finger-pointing is counterproductive.”
The hard-fought transportation funding deal came amid a faltering economy that prompted lawmakers to cut public school funding for the first time. Despite GOP Gov. Butch Otter making transportation funding – and a gas tax increase – a top priority, holding meetings around the state for the past year and pushing hard for lawmakers to sign on, they wouldn’t.
“The difficulty, of course, was the economy,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls. “The economy is our enemy, and I think the body did quite well in working through it. I am concerned about next year’s budget.”
Otter played it positive Friday afternoon. “This was never about any particular way of generating the revenue we need to fulfill this proper role of government,” he said of the transportation dispute. “This was about acknowledging the challenge and making a commitment now to meeting it. That’s been achieved.”
Lawmakers agreed to repeal a tax exemption for ethanol, saving about $16.4 million for roadwork, and raise an array of administrative fees at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which will bring in $13.1 million. They also endorsed two smaller bills on truck fees that could raise up to $3.5 million.
But the rest of the $54 million compromise came from an agreement to shift funding for the Idaho State Police and the state Department of Parks and Recreation off the gas tax as of July 1, 2010. A task force of lawmakers will work over the summer to find new funding sources; if they don’t, those departments would tap into the state’s general fund – the funding source for schools, colleges and universities, prisons, health programs and more.
“The Legislature is charged and has clearly expressed an intent that we will find replacement money,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who urged the Senate to support the plan Friday, the 117th and final day of the session.
Keough said she wanted more. State transportation officials have cut back on snowplowing in North Idaho because of the maintenance funding crunch, she said – something she sees firsthand as a regular commuter from Sandpoint to Coeur d’Alene.
“I drive … in 6 inches of slush, because ITD doesn’t have maintenance money to plow on a regular basis,” she told the Senate. “This isn’t about me, it’s about the traveling public taking their life in their hands to get to work, to get to school.”
Otter started the session challenging lawmakers to approve $174 million a year in additional revenue for highway and bridge maintenance, through a combination of gas tax increases, increased vehicle registration fees, and several other smaller fees and taxes, including eliminating the ethanol exemption from the gas tax. Only the ethanol bill passed.
Otter also called for phasing the Idaho State Police off the gas tax over five years, saving $3.2 million next year for roads. Lawmakers, however, left that suggestion untouched for months, for lack of replacement funding for the ISP; then, it emerged in a different form as part of the end-of-session compromise.
Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I just don’t like these end-of-session deals that we put together so we can go home – it’s not the right way to make policy.”
Instead, said Sayler, a retired high school government teacher, issues need to be brought out and worked on early, by all parties. “We have to be able to recognize others’ truths, and recognize that their issues are just as important to them as ours are to us,” he said.
Jorgenson said, “You can’t expect much to get done if there’s no spirit or attitude to compromise.”
While the Senate signed on to Otter’s road deal, the House repeatedly balked at it. House Republican leaders then informed the governor that they no longer supported any gas tax increase this year; they even attempted to unilaterally adjourn the session last week to prove their point.
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I was a supporter of the fuel tax and I remain, at this point, a supporter, because I think we’re missing an opportunity.” Under the compromise, Eskridge said, the cost to address Idaho’s road maintenance shortfall is “laid on all the people of Idaho,” when it could be paid by everyone who drives and buys gas in the state – including tourists.
Here are some of the other major issues addressed by this year’s Idaho Legislature:
•Legislation pushed by Sayler for the past five years to regulate small day care operations passed both houses and was signed into law this week. The House amended the bill to significantly scale back its regulations, but Sayler still called it a win for children. Under the new law, day care operators who care for seven or more unrelated children must be licensed, and those with four or more must get criminal background checks.
•Major election consolidation legislation passed, to move all of Idaho’s elections to four specific dates, and most to the spring primary and fall general election dates. That includes hundreds of elections for various taxing districts that now might be held on any day of the year. Though counties, which will run all the elections under the new system, will start gearing up next year, the change won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2011.
•Federal economic stimulus funds allowed the state to fund a series of high-profile, pricey road and bridge projects they otherwise couldn’t have done; topping the list, and now scheduled for replacement, is the infamous Dover Bridge on Highway 2 in North Idaho.
•Major legislation to reform Idaho’s population-based quota system for liquor licenses was debated, but killed; major legislation to impose the state’s first personal financial disclosure requirements on elected officials and candidates passed the Senate, but House Speaker Lawerence Denney declined to advance the bill in the House.
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