Transportation funding questions unanswered
By JAY PATRICK
“The gas tax should be raised from 25 cents per gallon to ______, for ______ years.”
At the end of 18 months and nine meetings — including a grueling eight-hour rehash of facts and figures on Tuesday — the line containing the two big blanks projected on screens behind Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force at the Capitol.
After all the studies, lobbying, discussions, and media to and fro, this is what it all came down to. Was this committee that Otter ordered after getting his 10-cent gas tax increase idea shunned by Republican colleagues last year going to honor its inclinations and suggest a hike? Would the group lay out for legislators a concrete path for how to address the transportation department’s staggering funding shortfall?
No on both counts.
With task force members discussing peripheral particulars and no one straight up sticking any numbers in those holes, committee chair Lt. Gov. Brad Little called a 10-minute break. During the intermission, Little huddled with Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell behind the dais. The intermission over, Little called on McGee, who said the group had accomplished much and pushed the proceedings to a close.
“We will now be able to provide the Legislature and the governor much more information on what it’s going to take to maintain and operate Idaho’s roads,” he said. The task force, he said, had fleshed out the issue. “We have taken a long-term look and a thorough look at transportation across the state.”
The task force had ordered Idaho Transportation Department to do a study that found semi-trucks pay far too little for highway maintenance and that cars pay way too much, considering how much damage each inflicts on roads. The group also compiled a list of ways road funding might be generated to pass along to legislators, including a gas tax, a tax on wholesale fuel sales, and an excise tax on car rentals.
“We’ve now ranked what this task force believes is palatable,” McGee said. “We’ve made those determinations. That’s on the list of the accomplishments of this task force. If we go now and try to plug in numbers it becomes futile because the variables and the factors are changing so much . . . I don’t know how we’re going to come to any conclusions on that. We’ve done a lot of great stuff already.”
Prior to McGee’s speech, Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said the task force would be falling short if it didn’t take a stand.
“Where I get hung up, we say we’re recommending we increase revenue by ‘X’ number. Why in the world would we want to not tell them how? The credibility of the task force is on the hook out there. If we want to punt to them (the Legislature) and say ‘you figure it out,’ then we haven’t done our job. We need to tell them how to get there.”
Lake cast the only vote against making recommendations presenting the amount ITD needs — up to $500 million more per year — and offering the list of methods to produce the needed money. After the meeting, Lake said: “I expected the task force to make some specific recommendations. I think there were people, including ITD, that were looking for specifics.”
However, Lake did agree with McGee, and others on the committee, who said the group did well generating more information for lawmakers to work with.
But Dave Carlson, AAA Idaho’s longtime director of governmental relations, said the task force failed to face up to the study showing cars pay too much and trucks too little.
“They backed out of a discussion about policy that we think would have broadened the entire tax base and would have created solutions far more palatable to the public. He went on: “I’m not sure the questions were answered equal to the charge that the governor asked for in the first place.”
Carlson, and others, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred, had called for trucks to pay higher registration fees based on weight. The task force, Carlson said, did not “consider the value of a study that we thought clearly changed the landscape on how transportation funding in this state should be accomplished . . . the committee members looked like they were trying to find answers, to put business interests ahead of taxpayers’ interest. That’s unfortunate.”
McGee, in an interview after the meeting, said the situation is not so black and white.
“It’s not as simple as cars versus trucks,” he said, noting the role in the economy trucks play and the potential negative impacts on commerce a fee increase might cause. “We have to think beyond the visceral reaction we have to the study.”