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House Transportation Panel OKs Vote on Idaho Road Bill

Sat April 25, 2009 - West Edition

BOISE, Idaho (AP) Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s plan to raise millions of dollars in new gas taxes and registration fees won’t die in the House Transportation Committee. Whether it survives a House vote is another question altogether.

The panel agreed March 17 at a hastily called special meeting to let the full chamber weigh in — a sign of respect for Otter’s efforts to fix Idaho’s roads that he’s made his chief first-term issue, but well short of a ringing endorsement for raising taxes in the midst of a recession.

“We’ve stalemated here,” said Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, on why Otter’s bills are moving to a full House vote without any more committee testimony. “We need to have everyone vote.”

Otter would boost Idaho’s gas tax to 32 cents per gallon after three years, from 25 cents now, raising $61.6 million.

He’d also increase registration fees for cars and trucks, raising another $44 million.

The Idaho Transportation Department would get about $65 million, while local highway districts would see their revenue rise about $40 million, if the bill passes.

With other roads-related measures being pushed by Otter this year, including striking the ethanol tax exemption and shifting funding for the Idaho State Police from roads-related taxes to the general fund, the Republican governor hopes to raise or redirect a total of $130 million annually to road and bridge maintenance.

An audit by the state highway agency, released in January, concluded that Idaho is falling behind on its ability to maintain its 5,000 miles of highways.

March 17’s plan was well shy of Otter’s original $174 million proposal that never found favor with House lawmakers. It may still be too pricey for lawmakers on the transportation panel. But they said they wanted to give Otter “a show of good faith” and let the measure live or die on its merits on the House floor.

“They came and talked to us. We felt it was a fair request,” said Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, adding that most of his 18-lawmaker minority still oppose the tax and fee hikes. “I don’t think we’ll have complete unanimity, but set against the recession, most of our caucus feels like new taxes during these times don’t send the right message.”

Only one lawmaker on the 15-person panel, Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, voted against sending the measure to the House.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, pointed out that lawmakers had heard plenty during previous hearings from lobbyists for the construction industry, builder URS Corp., which oversees the $1 billion “Connecting Idaho” roads project, and the Transportation Department about why roads needed more money.

So far, however, people who would pay the taxes have remained largely on the sidelines, something Hagedorn wants to change before the House votes on the bills.

“It’s critical that we hear from the citizens of Idaho, as well as the people we’ve heard from in this room,” he said.

Jason Kreizenbeck, Otter’s chief of staff, acknowledged members of both parties in the House still need convincing if the measure is to gain the 36 votes needed to advance to the Senate, where sentiments toward road funding are friendlier.

“This was a good gesture on the part of the House,” Kreizenbeck said after the meeting. “But we have to keep working.”

He’s trying to win over skeptics by arguing that Idaho residents, on average, will pay just $54 more per year with both bills, but will benefit from 2,500 new jobs, increased safety and less highway congestion.

The fuel tax would rise a total of 7 cents over three years — from 25 cents per gallon now to 28 cents this year, then 2-cent-per-gallon raises in each of the following two years. Otter had originally wanted a 10 cent increase over five years.

For owners of cars less than two years old, state registration fees would jump to $84, from $48 now. For the roughly 53 percent of Idaho residents whose cars are older than eight years, the fee would rise to $36, from $24.

Under the plan Otter has since abandoned, he would have increased those fees, depending on vehicle age, to between $50.17 to $120.40 over five years.

Truck registration fees also would increase. For instance, owners of the largest commercial trucks would pay $600 annually by 2013, up from $515 today.

Though Kreizenbeck labeled the scaled-back proposal a compromise, some House lawmakers insisted that wasn’t accurate. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, has said he’s leery of new taxes for roads because he’s heard little public clamor to pay more. Just because he agreed to let the full House vote on the two measures was a far cry from actually voting for either one, he said.

“We keep referring to this as a compromise,” Labrador said. “It’s really a revised plan. We haven’t agreed to a compromise.”

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