BOISE By Jeff Myers, Legislative Intern
Idaho County Free Press
BOISE -- A $95 million transportation funding measure has passed the Idaho Legislature.
The bill calls for a 7 cent gas tax increase as well as increased registration fees for all vehicles. Light vehicles and passenger car registration will increase by $21 while commercial trucks will be subject to a $25 increase. Motorcycle registration will be raised by $19. Under the plan there will also be a $75 fee for hybrid cars and a $140 fee for electric vehicles. The new money raised by the gas tax and registration fee increase will be distributed to state and local agencies; 60 percent will go to the state and 40 percent to local districts. In addition to the $95 million raised by the gas tax and registration fee increase, the bill calls for a two year surplus eliminator. The surplus eliminator will transfer 50% of Idaho’s unallocated, general fund revenue to the Idaho Transportation Department’s Strategic Initiative Program for the repair and maintenance of Idaho’s roads. After those two years the legislature will likely have to re-examine the plan and determine if changes are necessary.
The bill is an attempt to address Idaho’s $262 million annual maintenance and repair shortfall on Idaho’s roads and bridges. At this year’s State of State address Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter identified the issue as one of his most pressing concerns.
“After education,” said Otter, “investing in infrastructure is among the smartest, most cost effective and frankly essential uses of taxpayer dollars to promote the public’s general welfare and sustain economic growth.” During his speech Otter cited 785 bridges in Idaho that are more than 50 years old and “structurally deficient.”
In a 2014 poll, conducted by the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research, 53 percent of Idahoans surveyed identified roads and bridges as one of the top three priorities they believe the legislature needs to address. Of those surveyed 71 percent characterized Idaho’s roads and bridges as “very important” to Idaho’s economy. In response to favorable revenue generation methods, 7 percent strongly supported increased fuel tax, 10 percent strongly supported registration fee increases on passenger cars and light trucks, 26 percent strongly supported increased registration for commercial trucks and 28 percent strongly supported the use of current sales tax on automotive parts and tires.
The funding bill was passed in the final day of the 2015 legislative session after two days of debate over amendments in a special conference committee. The committee was composed of three members of the Senate: Bert Brackett (R-Rodgerson), Dean Cameron (R-Rupert) and Roy Lacey (D-Pocatello) as well as three members of the House: Joe Palmer (R-Meridian), John Vander Woude (R-Nampa) and Mat Erpelding (D-Boise).
The Senate members came to the table wanting less impact on the general fund and more funding for local districts’ repair and safety needs.
“I don’t want to use general funds,” said Cameron, “because I don’t want legislators involved in the process of pushing which roads should be built. I think that’s inappropriate… If the general funds were being used we wanted them to be split [60 percent to state projects and 40 percent to local districts].”
Palmer and Vander Woude, Representatives of the House, were standing firm in not raising the fuel tax by more than 5 cents, instead putting forth the surplus eliminator fund and placing that money in the hands of ITD.
“I think it’s necessary to have a general fund component in transportation funding for several reasons,” said Palmer, “obviously the main reason is the gas tax is going to continue to go backwards on us. No matter how much we add to it, it’s still going to regress. It is the absolute regressive tax. It does hurt the people who are at the bottom end of the spectrum, when it comes to income, the most. The money that has came (sic) in from gas tax really hasn’t changed over the last ten years. We’re still using the same amount of gallons even though there’s thousands more cars on the road.”
The committee finally came to a reluctant agreement on the second day of debate and voted unanimously in favor of a plan proposed by Representative Vander Woude.
“In spite that it is not what we need it to be,” said Cameron before voting to approve the amendments to the bill, “in spite that we have not fully resolved the issue, I think we are making a significant stride forward in addressing the transportation issues, management and maintenance of our current infrastructure. 95 million is not enough money but it’s a lot of money. 95 million plus potentially whatever can come from the surplus eliminator in a couple of years can make a significant dent in that infrastructure need.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning, with the end of the session looming, debate over the bill was held in both the House and the Senate.
Representative Palmer opened the debate in the House.
“Though I don’t agree with some of the funding mechanisms we use for other things that we do in the state and I believe more money should be given toward transportation.” said Palmer, “I do not see a way forward that is possible without going down this road and raising the tax formula that is used in the state of Idaho. Therefore I will support this bill.”
Representative Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) voted in favor of the bill. “I don’t think we’re solving the problem. I don’t know that anyone here thinks we are.” said Rubel, “We know that there are 25,000 miles of roads in Idaho that need repair, so we’re looking at fixing about 800 miles of that. That’s better than none and so with that I will vote for this bill given the late stage of our session… I hope that we can maintain this momentum and do our job to completion next time.”
Senator Grant Burgoyne (D-Boise), who cast his vote against the bill, expressed his dissatisfaction with the time spent in development of the legislation.
“Now it falls to us to decide on that bill and on its merits and whether the best that the process could yield is good enough,” said Burgoyne, “and I think that I can’t know that until the people who will pay this tax have a chance to chime in on it, and they don’t have that chance.” The bill also did not meet muster for Senator Marv Hagedorn (R-Meridian).
“Ladies and Gentleman we have failed.” said Hagedorn, “We have failed this legislative session and we have failed the last ten legislative sessions to tackle this problem…This bill brings us less money than we need to cover the debt service on our Garvee expenditures. We are not raising enough money to do the maintenance on our roads.”
Senator Jim Guthrie (R-McCammon) cast his vote in favor of the bill: “I have a concern about the lack of cost share with the locals,” said Guthrie explaining his vote, “[The] potential to use a great deal of general fund dollars, the unknown and unstable nature of the suite [surplus eliminator] component of the bill which I don’t think lends itself to good planning. It sunsets in two years, so in a sense we are kicking the can down the road and finally we’ve waited three months and now find ourselves dealing with a very condensed timeline in a very late hour and I don’t believe that’s a good strategy for passing a 95 to possibly 140 million dollar piece of legislation and it frustrates me to be backed into this corner with this bill. That said the senator reluctantly votes aye.”
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis (R-Idaho Falls) expressed his sympathy for senators with concerns but laid out the legislature’s situation.
“You’re about to have a motion to adjourn sine die. There isn’t going to be a tomorrow to vote on it,” said Davis, “so you can stand on the principles… but at the end of the day you walk away with nothing.”
The bill was passed in the Senate in a vote of 26-9 and in the House in a vote of 51-19.