BOISE – Idaho lawmakers worked into the evening Wednesday, but agreement on transportation funding eluded them.
This morning, appointees from the state House and Senate will gather in a rare conference committee to consider how to deal with a $262-million-a-year backlog in road and bridge maintenance. The House sent the Senate a modest, $20-million-a-year vehicle registration increase bill. The Senate amended it, turning it into a $127 million, phased-in package of gas tax increases and fee increases over the next four years.
The House – with only four members dissenting – refused to concur in the Senate’s amendments, prompting House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to call for a conference committee.
“It seems to be a good path forward on this impasse between the two bodies,” Bedke said.
Around 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Senate agreed and named its three appointees; the House named its appointees an hour earlier and adjourned for the day.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate endorsed House-passed legislation to exempt road materials from Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax, but amended the bill to push its effective date off a year. The bill, which passed on a 25-9 vote, had been hanging unaddressed on the Senate’s calendar for weeks; it passed the House Feb. 19 on a 43-26 vote. The idea behind the bill is that the tax exemption would result in indirect savings on road work for the state, if construction companies lower their bids for road jobs to reflect the lack of a need to pay sales tax on materials.
It would reduce state sales tax revenues by up to $20 million a year; backers estimated it would save a like amount for the Idaho Transportation Department and local highway districts on road work. Opponents questioned whether the savings really would be passed on and noted that the state general fund would see no replacement. The general fund, which includes sales tax revenues, is the fund that pays for schools, prisons, Health and Welfare programs, and more.
But Gov. Butch Otter has been saying since the start of the legislative session – and he reaffirmed his position on Monday – that he doesn’t want to cut into the general fund to pay for road work. Idaho traditionally has favored a “user pay” approach that relies heavily on gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to fund roads and bridges.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-3 in favor of another House-passed bill to shift roughly $26 million from the general fund to roads. That bill is now awaiting a vote in the full Senate.
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