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Republican seeks local option transportation tax for all Idaho counties

Republican seeks local option transportation tax for all Idaho counties

Dustin Hurst
February 11, 2015
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February 11, 2015

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, introduced legislation Tuesday that could allow county taxpayers the ability to tax themselves to pay for specific road projects.

The measure would allow the state’s highway districts -- more than 200 strong -- to ask voters to approve registration fee hikes for specific projects. The bill would also allow highway districts to borrow against future revenues from approved fee hikes, allowing for more flexibility in spending.

Palmer, chair of the House Transportation and Defense Committee, isn’t sure how often highway districts will use the option, but said he wanted to give it to them.

“It may never get used, but it might,” Palmer said.

Highway districts interested in asking voters for new fees would face a tough road under Palmer’s bill. First, the district would have to convince county officials to greenlight the plan. Then, the district would have to secure approval from 66 percent of voters before moving forward.

Some counties feature multiple highway districts and county commissioners could greenlight several fee hikes for projects from requesting agencies.

If voters approve the fee request, highway districts could secure funding and fee changes with just a simple majority vote. Leftover money would land in a fund dedicated to maintaining the project voters approved.

“Mistakes can be made,” Palmer said, explaining that language. “There has to a provision in there just in case. That is a concession that is in there.”

One Idaho county -- Ada, the largest in the state -- already runs a similar program. The county doesn’t have specific projects, as Palmer’s bill requires, but voters in that district approved in 2008 an extra fee hike to address general road and bridge maintenance.

It’s an unusual move in the Idaho Capitol, where Republicans who control both legislative bodies are reticent to approve local option tax legislation.

Palmer denies this is that. “This is not the local option tax,” he said. “This is a funding mechanism.”

The distinction, Palmer said, comes in preventing competition among cities. If one city has a local option tax and another doesn’t, there’s competition among governments to draw away businesses and residents.

“It’s dangerous going down that road,” Palmer said.

Palmer also noted his proposal gives the power to decide on taxes to the voters, not city councils or county commissions, as local option tax plans usually do.

Only Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, opposed introducing the plan.

Idaho lawmakers are busily using myriad options to address the state’s transportation funding shortfall, projected at more than $250 million. Gov. Butch Otter asked for more money during his State of the State address, but didn’t outline how lawmakers should achieve it.

Lawmakers, including Palmer, believe they could use a mix of gas tax hikes, registration fee increases and general fund dollars to address the shortfall.

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