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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Hemming, hawing, and truck registration fees

Idaho’s state Capitol, shown early in the morning on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Idaho’s state Capitol, shown early in the morning on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

The legislative interim committee charged with re-examining truck registration fees in Idaho met again last week, after learning that its Nov. 9 decision to just make no recommendation won’t fly.

“The reason we do have this meeting is because we do have to make a recommendation,” said Co-Chairman Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian. “No matter what the recommendation is, if we’re going to make some changes, hire a consultant or even if we don’t want to do anything, there still has to be a recommendation … a letter drafted to leadership.”

The panel was convened in the wake of a 2010 state report that showed truck drivers are underpaying for their impact on Idaho roads, while motorists are overpaying.

After much hemming and hawing, Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, moved to pursue extending the committee for another year, and to consider hiring a consultant to “do due diligence on fair rates for trucks.” Last summer, the interim committee issued a request for information and heard a presentation from a consulting firm in response to the RFI that was interested in studying the issue for the panel; however, the committee took no action to hire the firm.

“I’m comfortable asking to reauthorize the interim committee,” said Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa. “I’m not necessarily comfortable asking to hire a consultant at this point. … I think there’s still enough questions as far as what we would want that consultant to do, that would necessitate further study. … At this point, I’m not sure what we’re asking for from them.”

After discussion, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, clarified that the motion would be to “ask that we reauthorize this committee, and that the new committee would consider retaining a consultant and funding if that happens.”

Brackett called for a voice vote, and after hearing the ayes, moved straight through any possible nays to declaring the motion had passed. “Rep. Palmer is squirming in his seat,” Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise pointed out.

“It’s all right,” Palmer responded.

Brackett said, “Well, that concludes the meeting. We’ll stand adjourned.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter convened a task force that reported in 2011 that the state needed to spend $262 million more a year just to preserve its roads and bridges as is and $543 million more a year if it also wanted to make needed improvements for safety and capacity. Since then, lawmakers and the governor have fought about how to approach that goal. Last year, the Legislature approved a bonding plan to add lanes in certain high-priority highway corridors and a $15 million shift from the state general fund to road work.

In 2015, in a conference committee at the end of a long and bitter legislative session, lawmakers agreed on a 7-cent gas tax hike, increases in vehicle registration fees and several smaller changes to raise an additional $94 million a year for road maintenance.

Truck fees weren’t addressed, despite a state-commissioned cost-allocation study, included in the governor’s task force report, that estimated that drivers of passenger cars in Idaho pay 8 percent more than they should, given their impact on roads, while combination trucks pay 14 percent less than they should.

Idaho used to have a “ton-mile” tax for roads, but it was ruled unconstitutional in a 1997 lawsuit filed by trucking companies who charged it was inequitable, so it was repealed.

The 2015 compromise legislation, HB 312, declared it was the “intent of the Legislature” to impose a new registration fee on commercial trucks to take into account their weight and the distance they travel. The new weight-distance tax would be imposed, the bill said, “on or before Jan. 1, 2019.”

Nothing happened for the next two years. But during the 2017 legislative session, Brackett, the Senate transportation chairman, sponsored a resolution calling for this year’s interim committee to study a weight-distance tax.

The panel, co-chaired by Brackett and Palmer, the House transportation chairman, began meeting in August, and held its last meeting in November. At the August meeting, Brackett said the sense of the committee was that they didn’t want to consider anything that might raise revenue – any proposal would have to be “revenue-neutral.”

Palmer said research presented to the committee showed Idaho’s truck registration fees already are higher than those in most states.

The Idaho Transportation Department estimates that with the legislative changes of the past few years, its annual shortfall for roads has dropped from $262 million for maintenance to $156.4 million and from $543 million for both maintenance and keeping up with safety and capacity needs to $417.1 million.

Scott Wilson, of Texas-based D’Artagnan Consulting, which specializes in user-based transportation revenue solutions, told the panel last summer that Idaho’s current system of taxing trucks “poorly reflects use.” Idaho’s transportation system is set up as a “user-pay” system, in which user fees, mainly consisting of fuel taxes and registration fees, largely fund roads, rather than the state’s general fund.

What they really, really want …

The annual BSU Public Policy Survey is out, and it shows that Idahoans overwhelmingly believe the state budget should stay the same or be increased; nearly two-thirds think the current tax burden is about right; and if there were to be tax reform, they favor eliminating the sales tax on food by a two-to-one margin over cutting state income tax rates.

That means big majorities of Idahoans, as measured in the university’s rigorous 1,000-person poll of Idaho adults, want the opposite of what Gov. Butch Otter has proposed lawmakers do this year – cut income tax rates while leaving the 6 percent sales tax on groceries – and they disagree with all three leading GOP candidates for governor, who want to cut taxes and the state budget. First District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador has said Idaho’s state budget needs to be “slashed.”

“Almost two-thirds of our respondents said that the tax burden in the state that we have currently is about right,” said BSU political science professor Justin Vaughn, who presented the survey’s results at a statehouse news conference.

Plus, he said, “Pretty consistently, no matter what information you give people, eliminating tax on food is more popular than reducing income tax.”

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