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Friday, January 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho gas tax referendum effort falls short

BOISE – A North Idaho retiree’s push to force a voter referendum on this year’s Idaho transportation funding bill – which includes a 7-cent gas tax increase that takes effect July 1 – has fallen far short.

Alan Littlejohn of Athol needed to gather 47,432 signatures by today to trigger a voter referendum; he turned in just 32, more than half of them from members of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

“I believe that any time you want to tax somebody, the taxpayers should have the voice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Littlejohn said. “That’s just me.”

But in his first attempt at getting a rare voter referendum on Idaho’s ballot, he wasn’t prepared for the big job or the short time frame. Referenda must be filed, with all the necessary signatures, within 60 days after the final adjournment of the legislative session in which the law passed. The transportation bill, HB 312a, passed on April 10, the last day of this year’s legislative session, after weeks of hearings and negotiations and a rare House-Senate conference committee.

Referenda are rare in Idaho, but most notably were successfully used to overturn the controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws in 2010.

Littlejohn submitted his referendum petition on May 5. It was required to include 20 signatures; he turned in 32. The official certificate of review for the referendum was issued by the Idaho Attorney General’s office on May 26, and the short and long ballot titles on May 29.

Littlejohn said when he received that, “It was like, ‘You have until June 9 to have 47,000-something signatures,” from legislative districts dispersed across the state and verified by each county as coming from registered voters. “I said, ‘You can’t do that, there’s no way – there’s less than a week.”

Betsie Kimbrough, elections assistant in the Idaho Secretary of State’s office, said, “The last I heard from him, he said he appreciated my efforts and time, but he understood it was probably not going to go anywhere” because of the tight time frame.

Littlejohn said he made a presentation this spring to the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, asking for support for the measure, and more than a dozen committee members signed his petition on the spot.

He’s dropped the effort for now. But Littlejohn, a retired fire district captain from California who settled on a ranch north of Athol a decade ago, said he plans to keep working on political and tax-related issues, and may work with North Idaho lawmakers like his local state representative, Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, on possible bills.

“Hopefully we can get something accomplished in the Idaho state Legislature,” Littlejohn said, “because this session didn’t go very well, in my mind.”

The transportation bill, which had been in the works since at least 2008, raises $95 million a year toward Idaho’s $262 million annual backlog in road and bridge maintenance. The measure also includes a “surplus eliminator” that at this point looks like it will raise close to another $50 million for road and bridge maintenance next year, through a share of state surplus funds.

The Idaho Transportation Department estimates that beyond the $262 million backlog, which reflects what it should be spending, but isn’t, each year just to keep the state’s roads and bridges in their current shape, there’s a total shortfall of $543 million a year to also address system improvements, including coping with congestion.

Idaho’s gas tax, now 25 cents per gallon, hasn’t been raised since 1996. Because it’s not adjusted for inflation and vehicles are more fuel-efficient now, it’s raised less and less even as more vehicles are driving on Idaho’s road system; it’s the state’s main funding source for roads.

In addition to the 7 cent gas tax increase and the “surplus eliminator,” HB 312a included car and truck registration fee increases and new annual fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, at $140 for electric vehicles and $75 for hybrids.

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