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Another showdown looms for Otter over road funding, gas tax hike

Another showdown looms for Otter over road funding, gas tax hike

Dustin Hurst
January 13, 2015
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January 13, 2015

Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State address contained a three-letter oddity the average Idahoan probably missed.

But the three letters, underlined and capitalized in the the text copy of the governor’s annual address, could set up a showdown between Otter and a House committee chairman.


Three letters, capitalized and underlined for emphasis mean one thing: the governor is serious.

The word appeared near the end of the speech, and closed the door on Idaho using general fund dollars -- as opposed to dedicated tax streams -- for road building and maintenance.

“I will NOT entertain proposals aimed at competing for general fund tax dollars with education and our other required public programs or services,” the governor warned Monday.

Otter placed a shot across the bow, but at whom?

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, that’s who.

Otter didn’t spell out exactly how he’d like lawmakers to address the more than $250 million backlog of road projects, but hinted the answer must be something steady and ongoing. That might mean gas tax hikes paired with registration fee increases -- which feed into dedicated funding accounts for roads.

“I’m a user-pay type of guy,” Otter told reporters at a press conference following the address.

But while the governor was busily touting his plans, Palmer, the chair of the House Transportation and Defense Committee, was readying for a fight.

He’s not, he told IdahoReporter.com, in line with the governor’s agenda for roads. Sure, the chairman said, roads need more funding and lawmakers should address it. But Palmer’s open to using general fund dollars where Otter is not.

“We’re not going to raise the gas tax 30 cents,” Palmer said, acknowledging the state needs big cash infusions to address structural needs. “We have to fund roads somehow.”

Typically, tax-related bills begin in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Palmer said while it’s far from a done deal, House leadership expressed interest in channeling the issue through the Transportation and Defense Committee.

Palmer, a three-term lawmaker, knows something needs to happen, though he’s not entirely sure how things will shake out. One thing he knows: change must come.

“The way we’ve been funding roads isn’t working,” Palmer said.

Otter sees that, too. At the press conference, he told reporters a simple gas tax hike wouldn’t solve the problem because high-efficiency and electric cars wouldn’t pay as much for roads as gas-guzzlers, even though the small, fuel-sipping models might log more miles.

There’s absolutely no appetite, Palmer said, for taxing by the mile.

The governor might have created a false dichotomy by pitting education and road spending against one another in his State of the State address, the chairman suggested. “There’s no competition here,” Palmer said. “My proposals were always about after education was funded.”

The chairman is serious about using general fund dollars for roads, saying legislators “need to” go down that road.

It could be a bumpy journey for Palmer and Otter. Asked if he thought the governor’s underlined message was meant for him, Palmer deflected. “I don’t know,” he said with a slight smile. “You’ll have to determine that for yourself.”

Even so, there’s been no contact between the governor or his staffers and Palmer. The chairman, for his part, hasn’t reached out, either.

“I haven’t been up there,” Palmer said. “I’m not even sure where the office is.”

This isn’t a new fight for Otter. The governor sought a gas-tax hike in 2009, which lawmakers, led by then-Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, whittled down and eventually killed.

Other lawmakers keep open minds. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he wants to see details about any transportation package before he declares his support.

This is the second committee chair in the Capitol to try to paint the governor -- and even fellow lawmakers -- into a corner. Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said the state needs to make whole the education budget -- whatever that means -- before he entertains tax relief bills.

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