In a move that caught some legislators by surprise, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) Thursday that in order to help combat the road and bridge issues facing the state, it may be time to look to the general fund.
“We have to take care of that,” Hammond said. “We have bridges that are old. Truly, we’ve got to address that issue.”Hammond is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Road and bridge projects typically are funded through the state’s gas tax, as well as the federal government. Hammond said lawmakers might also explore indexing the state’s gas tax to inflation.
The general fund idea was met with surprise from Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, budget committee co-chair. “That was a bomb,” Bell said. “Woo!”
Hammond’s comments come just two weeks after a joint meeting of the House and the Senate transportation committees listened to a presentation from the Idaho Transportation Department where committees heard that not only is there an issue with roads and bridges throughout the state, but that the problems may be worse than most people thought.
Hammond, in an interview with IdahoReporter.com, expanded on his comment about the use of general fund money for infrastructure needs and said the issue of funding is nothing new. “The issue of funding our transportation system is certainly not a new a issue, it’s several years old. And, when I talk about going to the general fund, I’m not necessarily talking about an appropriation of the general fund, but there has been some discussion about some items that directly go to transportation, such as tires, car batteries, that maybe the sales tax off that might be diverted to the highway fund. That’s the kind of thing that I was talking about.”
House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, agrees with Hammond, saying that the monies from car batteries and tires are a “huge amount,” and that they should go to roads. “Absolutely I think general fund money should go to the roads,” he said. “We’re one of, I believe, four states that doesn’t spend general fund money on roads.”
Palmer said he wants to know exactly how much Idahoans are paying in state sales tax for tires each year, which he believes could be shifted to pay for road construction. “I’d like to see that number because tires are something that do damage directly to our highway,” he explained. “There’s a direct correlation there.”
Hammond isn’t sure if his idea would ever get real traction, but said “At the very least it needs to be part of the discussion.”
The Senate transportation chairman says he understands there are a number of demands on the general fund for revenue to fund ongoing projects and services as well as do something to compensate for the budget cuts enacted by the Legislature in 2010 and 2011. “I understand that’s really a stretch when you’ve got substantial demands on the general fund as it sits right now, and my point, which obviously worked, was just to draw attention to the extreme concern I have for the funding of our highways. You can put it off for so long, but at some point in the not-too-distant future the bridges and many of our roads will deteriorate to the point where it will cost a lot more to rebuild them than it would have to just provide the proper continued maintenance on them.”
Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, a member of JFAC, is sympathetic to dedicating some tax money to infrastructure, but there are complications. “We are currently getting 53 percent of our transportation funding from federal dollars sent back to us from fuel taxes. We are what's called a ‘donee state’ where we get back much more … than we send in through taxes. Those states that are getting less than they send to the feds are now working to get their share back ... that will leave us getting less and less in the long run.”
So what does he see as a solution to less federal dollars and more money needed by the state to cover road and bridge needs? “We must wean ourselves off of being so dependent upon federal money for our maintenance, operations and construction. One way to do that would be to take the tax dollars associated with car sales or tires and battery sales and direct that to our transportation infrastructure ... but that would mean that those funds would not go into the general fund for Health and Welfare, Corrections, or Education ... essentially ‘taking’ from the general fund,” said Hagedorn.
Hagedorn said infrastructure needs “are going to have to be addressed somehow in our future,” but described funding from unaccustomed sources like money taken from general fund revenue as “a slippery slope that many don't want to go down.”
The state has some bonding capacity available through GARVEE funds with one legislator, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, recommending last session that it be used to address bridge needs in the state. Hammond doesn’t believe McGee’s idea will have any more success this session than in 2011. “When you do obligate yourself to those GARVEE bonds, then you have even less money remaining for your current needs and I’m certain that there just isn’t the political will or even the interest in obligating ourselves to further bonds when we’re struggling so much to maintain what we’ve got,” said Hammond.
In early 2011, Gov. Butch Otter appointed Lt. Gov. Brad Little to head a task force on transportation needs and possible solutions. The group identified hundreds of millions of dollars of needs, but Little told IdahoReporter.com following the release of the report that the state’s funding needs for education and other priorities necessitated the state putting off any added infrastructure funding until times were better.
Has that time come for the governor’s office? Not quite yet. Jon Hanian, press secretary for Otter, said that he couldn’t necessarily speak directly to Sen. Hammond’s comments, but finding a long-term solution to the funding problems for roads and bridges in Idaho is a priority. “Finding a solution to our long-term road funding problems has, and remains a top priority of this governor and this administration. But, what the governor has said is, we need to do that when the economy has improved to the point where we can actually start thinking about a long-term fix. And, we’re not there yet.”