A constitutional amendment to allow airports to incur debt for capital investment projects and land acquisition cleared the full House on a 57-12 vote Wednesday.
According to the proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, using an interpretation of the law from a 2006 Idaho Supreme Court case, public entities like airports are required, by the Idaho Constitution, to get a two-thirds approval from local voters before entering into long-term debt obligations. Wood said that airports would never be allowed to use taxpayer dollars to pay off debt. The money to pay any debts would come from normal airport sources of revenues, such as tenant fees assessed to those businesses and operations which rent airport space.
At the committee hearing, Richard McConnell, director for the Boise Airport, said that more than 70 percent of people who use the airport are not residents of Boise, so the airport does not receive any tax dollars from those individuals. He said that the fees are the way the airport extracts funding from those travelers and could help to pay off debt. He also assured lawmakers of the financial stability of the airport.
“There has never been a time when the airport has operated at a loss,” said McConnell at the hearing.
The Boise Airport lost out on the chance base a major repair facility on its property because of its inability to incur debt to build the necessary buildings, said McConnell. He said that a regional carrier had approached the airport with the opportunity, but instead chose the airport in Reno, Nev., because the Boise Airport could not build an additional hangar the airline wanted.
Debt could also be vital Idaho landing the F-35 joint-strike fighter jets at Gowen Field, which shares the same land as the Boise Airport, said McConnell. He added that the airport would need to invest in new property or buildings should the planes eventually be based in Boise.
Before the vote on the House floor Wednesday, Wood said the restrictions placed on airports are too cumbersome and restrict the ability of airports to effectively plan for their future. He added that airports, as "economic engine" for the communities they serve, need the flexibility to adapt rapidly to a ever-changing business and economic climate.
Because it is a constitutional amendment, the measure requires a two-thirds vote by both Houses of the Legislature, the signature of the governor, and another two-thirds approval by voters in the general election in 2010. The cost of the bill, which is estimated at $35,000-$40,000, is associated the process of putting the proposal on the ballot
The proposal now heads to the Senate.