"We need to take it easy and move slow on this, but we need to seriously consider it," said Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, chairman of the House Transportation Committee as he presented proposed legislation to his committee that permits use of state general funds for infrastructure projects.
Palmer noted to the committee that Idaho is one of very few states that spends none of its general fund money on transportation. "Right now all of our transportation funding comes from vehicle registrations and fuel taxes," he explained. "That type of approach is volatile and it hits people right in the pocket book really fast."
Under Palmer's plan Idaho would begin using a portion of the state's general fund revenues after two individual criteria were met. First, the state would need to surpass its all-time high record of state tax revenues, and second, the state would need to reach its previous all-time high record of public education funding. Both records were set in 2009.
Palmer told the committee that "drivers and vehicle owners already pay a lot of taxes in our state. On average new car sales, alone, generate about $131 million in tax revenues per year."
Palmer also said that it would be a slow process to implement his new approach to transportation funding. "Even if the committee chooses to introduce this, the bill will not get an immediate hearing, it’s just going to be out there for a while and we'll let people think through it and discuss it. I suspect that the earliest we could implement this would probably be 2017, but we need to get the discussion going on this now. Transportation is vital to all aspects of our infrastructure."
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, told Palmer that "for discussion purposes, I'll support this. But I am not interested in dipping into state general funds until we adequately fund public education and higher education. We have a bad track record with those things."
For nearly five years officials in Idaho have been warning of a dire need for additional transportation funding streams. In 2009 Gov. Butch Otter established the Governor’s Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding, appointing Lt. Gov. Brad 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 between 2011 and 2013 Little consistently called for road and bridge upgrades around the state.
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 2013 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.
Two months later, in May of 2013, Little was still expressing great urgency about expanding the tax base for transportation, telling IdahoReporter.com at the time 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.” Little also noted at the time that he was very hesitant to spend state general funds for transportation.
But last month Otter seemed to slow down any impetus 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 transportation taxes Idahoans would accept.