(Note: This is part 5 of a five-installment interview with Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives.)
Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, believes that cigarette taxes, funding for roads and bridges and attempting to move some federal lands into state control could be hot-button issues on the docket for 2012.
Denney is skeptical about the cigarette tax hike, citing some loopholes that could ultimately blunt the reason its backers are pushing for it. The speaker expects lawmakers to go all the way on borrowed road funding and says that taxpayers and the state would reap many benefits if some Idaho lands were put under state jurisdiction and management.
For a number of years, Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, has said he will bring a bill to hike the state’s cigarette tax by $1.25 per pack. Lake is backed by the American Cancer Society, among a number of other pro-health groups. The Blackfoot lawmaker says he will bring the bill this year if the group asks him to do so.
Lake and the group argue that a hike would help curb youth smoking while generating revenue for health-related state programs.
Denney is skeptical of the idea because he sees ways to get around it. He says Native American reservations provide an easy way for Idahoans to get cheaper cigarettes than simply purchasing them at a local store. The speaker also pointed out that international websites allow less expensive smokes to come into the state and, while the practice is illegal, it’s very hard to enforce the law.
“If you’re going to increase the tax on cigarettes, there’s a few loopholes you have to plug first,” Denney said.
Going to the max for roads
Just before the 2011 session ended, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, brought a bill to spend the rest of the GARVEE money – a little more than $140 million in bonds – to repair some bridges and roads around the state, including the Meridian Road interchange in the TreasureValley.
GARVEE money is essentially borrowed and then repaid with federal road money. The program is authorized to spend $998 million, but the projects originally targeted are either in-progress or completed and $143 million is still available for road repair.
McGee told lawmakers in April the money would help address safety issues. “This would allow for those GARVEE dollars to be used on bridges across the state ofIdahothat are in much need of repair,” McGee said.
A number of lawmakers, including Denney, oppose more GARVEE spending because they believe it enters the state into debt, something prohibited by the Idaho Constitution. Still, lawmakers have never killed a GARVEE funding authorization bill and Denney expects McGee’s measure to pass and spending to be taken to the cap.
Even with his aversion to the road debt, Denney is fond of the work that’s already been done through GARVEE. “I do like the improvements that have been made on the interstate between Boise and Caldwell,” Denney said. “There are some great benefits to what we’ve done.”
If things go as Denney predicts, Idaho will hit the $998 million cap this year. “I suspect if Sen. McGee brings it again, there will be a good hearing and quite likely we will go to the max on spending,” the speaker said.
Taking federal lands for state control
There have been rumblings that the state might attempt to take some of the federal land within its borders and place them under state control through legislation or court challenges. No specific plans have been offered as to how this might happen, but Denney says the move would be beneficial for the state, taxpayers and even the environment.
“I don’t think they will ever allow us to take control over all of it at once, but I would certainly like to take control of a portion of it and have the federal government allow us to manage a portion of it and show we can actually do a good job and be good stewards of that property,” Denney said. “It would be good for the state and the environment as well.”
Denney says that if the state owned its natural resources, it would be beneficial to the budget. “Right now, the federal government owns a good portion of Idaho and we can’t manage it and we get very little revenue from that,” he concluded.
According to estimates, the federal government owns about 66 percent of Idaho’s land.
(Video for the five-part Denney series by Mitch Coffman, IdahoReporter.com.)