The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD)’s next budget will include reductions due to dwindling fuel tax revenues and a drop in bonding money available for construction programs. ITD uses no general funds, relying on dedicated and federal funds that come primarily from taxes on gasoline and diesel, and vehicle registration fees.
“It was pretty much what we expected,” Idaho Transportation Board chair Darrell Manning said. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) set a $483.6 million budget for ITD for the next fiscal year, which starts in July. That would be $54.9 million below their current budget, according to legislative budget numbers. “They were cuts due primarily to income,” Manning said. “We’ll live with what we get.”
“I think it’s our job to look at this budget and be as frugal as we can,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene about the transportation budget. “We don’t think any agency gets a free pass.”
Lawmakers set the reduced ITD budget with little debate until they discussed Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle (GARVEE), which issues bonds for ITD for work on six road construction projects across Idaho. ITD has bonded $681 million since 2006, and wanted authority for $26 million more in the next year. After three split votes, legislators on JFAC agreed to grant $12 million in bonds.
Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, tried to trim it $11 million. He said the extra $15 million would go to a construction project from Garwood to Sagle in northern Idaho that likely wouldn’t start work until next year. That means that if ITD issued the bonds, they’d start piling up debt without and roadwork to show for it. “If my arithmetic is correct, it is costing the state in excess of $200,000 a month,” Henderson said. He added that he’s frustrated that some GARVEE roadwork is being held up by federal environmental impact studies.
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said those road improvements are needed. “Those are sections of highway that are dangerous that we have people getting killed on too often,” she said. “We need those intersections done as soon as possible, and I cannot support further delay.”
Regionalism played a part in the votes for GARVEE funding. Since the bond money would have gone to improvements in north Idaho, some JFAC members like Broadsword and Hammond were in support of more money. However, other north Idaho lawmakers, like Henderson and George Eskridge, R-Dover, favored less GARVEE bonding. Lawmakers in south Idaho tended to favor less funding, though there was not a clear geographic split. After two unsuccessful votes, JFAC co-chair Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he hoped to find some agreement. “We can sit here and find that magic number where both sides of the north can agree with one another,” he said.
Some JFAC members said no in all votes for GARVEE bonding, opposing adding to the state’s debt payments in the future. “We’re going backwards on this,” said Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls. He said lawmakers should find new revenue to pay for GARVEE bonds, such as raising the gas tax. “If we could raise money to pay the debt service, I guess I could agree to it.” An effort to raise gas taxes failed in the Legislature last year. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, also spoke against adding more bonding and debt for roads during the JFAC meeting.
Ultimately, JFAC approved the $12 million in bonding authority on a 12-8 vote. ITD would also be instructed to spend that bond money on right-of-way land acquisition for new or improved roads before funding construction projects. During the last few years, JFAC told ITD that construction was the top priority. In addition to the Garwood-to-Sagle projects, GARVEE is also funding construction work on U.S. 95 from Worley to Setters in north Idaho, U.S. 30 from McCammon to Soda Springs in southeast Idaho, and three projects along I-84 in southwest Idaho.