For more than four years Idaho state officials have been warning of an impending need to increase funding streams for the state’s transportation infrastructure. Now, as the 2014 legislative session draws closer—along with another election year—support seems to be waning for new types of transportation taxes. However, some members of the Legislature are suggesting that it’s time to use state general funds.
“I don't think there will be any new transportation taxes proposed during this next legislative session,” said Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, chairman of the House Transportation and Defense Committee.
“There might be some ways of moving other monies around. I've always been a proponent of using some of the state sales tax revenues for transportation funding and I'm open to considering ways to do that.”
Back in 2009 Gov. Butch Otter established what he referred to as the Governor’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding, appointing Little to direct the effort. From 2009 to 2011 the task force studied the needs of Idaho’s transportation infrastructure and considered new ways to fund those needs, and since 2011 Little has been calling for road and bridge upgrades around the state.
As part of their research efforts the task force heard testimony from national experts, officials from state and local government, transportation-related organizations and members of the public. “We summarized our findings in a report back at the end of 2011,” Little told IdahoReporter.com. “In 2012, I met with the appropriate legislative committees about this as well.”
The task force’s four major funding needs included:
(1) $155 million annually for operation, preservation and restoration of the state system.
(2) $107 million annually for operation, preservation and restoration of the local system.
(3) $207 million annually for capacity and safety enhancement for the state system.
(4) And $74 million annually for capacity and safety enhancement for the local system.
Then in March of this year, Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, introduced legislation to the House Transportation Committee that sought to raise taxes on automotive fuel, batteries and tires, while increasing fees on hybrid vehicles and on vehicle registrations. While the legislation never made it to the House floor, Brackett nonetheless told the House committee members that there would be a shortage in both maintenance of existing roads and new road construction without the additional taxes.
Nearly two months later in May, Little was still expressing great urgency about expanding the tax base for transportation, telling IdahoReporter.com that “I recently went back and reviewed the last speech I made on this subject, and my most highlighted point at that time was that if we don’t move on these items quickly, we could be in real trouble in the coming years.”
But earlier this month Otter seemed to slow down the steady march toward new transportation taxes when he announced at a meeting of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) that he would not pursue funding increases in the 2014 legislative session. Instead, Otter asked the AGC to help fund a poll that would measure Idahoans’ interest in increasing transportation taxes, while trying to ascertain what types of new transportations taxes Idahoans would accept.
In a similar vein with Otter’s recent remarks, Brackett now tells IdahoReporter.com that, looking ahead to 2014, “conventional wisdom says you don’t raise taxes in an election year, but the problem of funding is urgent, and what we really need is a grassroots effort of people across the state to tell their legislators to take a serious look at this. We need to consider our options, but we need to do it carefully.”
Brackett also stated that he’s open to considering the use of “black box” technology to track vehicle mileage, as a means of billing drivers on a per-mile basis.
One of Brackett’s fellow transportation committee members, Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, says he’s open to new ways to fund transportation. Yet like Palmer, Winder tells IdahoReporter.com that state sales tax revenues and general funds should be considered rather than implementing additional taxes.
“There’s discussion going on about transportation funding, and it really started back when Gov. (Phil) Batt was in office,” Winder told Idaho Reporter.com. “As far as any immediate change in funding, there’ll probably not be a whole lot. I don’t see the will of the Legislature leading to any major changes. But after the right to protect one’s self, there’s the right to have a good strong economy. And a part of having a good strong economy, especially in Western states, is a good highway and interstate system because we have to get our products from Idaho to all parts of the world, and that takes a good networking system.”
Winder acknowledged that his position of utilizing state general funds for transportation is not popular. “Some legislators are not willing to fight that political battle to take some of the state sales tax revenue and spend it on repairing roads and bridges. But whoever you are, even if you’re retired and don’t even have a vehicle, if you have a health emergency, you need police protection, you have a fire emergency, they have to get to you on roads and bridges. If you rely on having food on the store shelves, you rely on transportation. It impacts all of us.”
But what about the urgency of creating additional funding streams for transportation, as expressed by the governor’s task force? “I think there are urgencies, but I don’t think we have emergencies,” Palmer told IdahoReporter.com. “The problem is that we have some bridges in the state that, in the normal course of their life spans, are due for repairs and upgrades. If the repairs and upgrades are not made, then access to those bridges will be restricted.”