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Unda' The Rotunda

The Runaround on Getting Around: Transportation funding enters the spotlight

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Unda' the Rotunda gets a daily reminder of the state's overarching fiscal retention as we park our bike in the morning outside the Capitol Annex. The bike rack is in a convenient corner, penned in by the ever-shrinking battery of plastic toilets the state provides to visitors of the temporary People's House.

With the press quarters located just inside that same entrance, we can park, don the de rigueur attire and be typing within minutes. And if we need to take a leak along the way ... well, let's just say there has never been a line out there.

Hence the shrinkage in the number of portable toilets.

But back to the bike rack.

We like to think the growing number of bicycles parked there gives lawmakers pause every once in a while. Perhaps Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter was thinking of our blue, Trek singlespeed when he asked the Legislature last week to quadruple or even sextuple vehicle registration fees to pay for deferred road maintenance.

Most lawmakers expected some fee hike for registrations. And the public, according to recent polling done by the Associated General Contractors, supports increased funding for roads and feels that fee increases are the best source of those funds.

But conservatives and liberals alike described major sticker shock at the governor's $150 proposed registration fee hike. Plus, his proposed car-rental tax hike. And a scheme to move the State Police onto the general fund dole.

"It broke everything else loose," said Sen. Brad Little, an Emmett Republican.

There is general agreement that Idaho is behind in deferred road maintenance—by up to $250 million by some estimates. But no Republican wants to be the one to stick it to Idaho drivers. So Otter stuck his neck out last week.

"He knew he was going to get beat up on it," Little said.

By the next morning, in a hastily convened special committee meeting, House conservatives introduced a slate of bills aimed at undercutting the governor's tax increase: a $30 registration fee increase that Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, will still dislike; a pilfering of sales tax on tires and auto parts for roads, and a further attempt to reign in GARVEE, the road-building deficit-spending plan begun in the Kempthorne administration.

The $22 million sales tax shift proposed by Athol Republican Rep. Phil Hart and Rigby Republican Rep. JoAn Wood particularly irked Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John McGee, a Caldwell Republican, who had arranged a well-attended public meeting on the governor's proposals the day before.

"That would have been more appropriate during the beginning of the session before the budget writers had begun to set budgets," McGee said.

But the play worked in one sense. Otter met with House leadership the same day and declared his support for their take on a different form of transit funding. The governor now supports tweaking the state constitution to limit local transit funding.

For months now, House leaders have said that they would only entertain a local option tax for local transit and transportation needs if a high voter approval requisite is written into the Idaho Constitution.

Otter has always said he supports local option taxing for transit. He's also said that he may not vote to tax himself if he ever gets the chance, but he supports the concept.

But now Otter is calling for a constitutional amendment as well.

Otter wants the "maximum amount of public input and buy-in" for a local option tax, said spokesman Mark Warbis.

But the broad coalition of interests that has pushed for local option taxing, at first for the Treasure Valley and now statewide, is not buying it. Tying a local tax option to passage of a constitutional amendment assumes that the constitutional amendment is a popular idea. Or maybe it assumes that it is not popular and is therefore a cynical attempt to kill local option taxing.

In fact, a constitutional amendment on local option taxing may not even make it out of the House, let alone garner enough interest on a statewide ballot for approval.

So why not throw it all out there and see what sticks, local transit proponents are asking.

"We're basically saying to the leadership of the House, 'if [the amendment] can't even get out of the Legislature, then we should have an opportunity to have our bill heard in front of the Revenue and Tax Committee,'" said Chuck Winder, a former Idaho Transportation Board chairman and current co-chair of Moving Idaho Forward, the group lobbying for local transit and road taxing authority.

Winder wants his bill, which authorizes cities and counties to ask their residents to vote for locally funded transit and transportation projects, to get a hearing.

"On one hand, the Legislature isn't providing the means to take care of our infrastructure needs, so there's a definite need for funding at the local level," he said.

The coalition has broadened its mission over three years. At first, it just sought local option transit funding for the Treasure Valley. Now, public officials from the north and east have joined the effort, arguing that they have local transportation needs that the state can't, or won't, address.

But local option taxes are just one part of the funding puzzle. GARVEE, which takes out bonds for road projects bankrolled on future federal highway funding, is another method. And Otter's bills and what have been referred to as the "dumb House bills" generally seek flat fees and regressive means of funding roads.

Gov. Otter "has a bias toward wanting to take taxpayer dollars and put them into brick and mortar projects ... which basically puts them into the hands of private companies," said Boise Rep. Nicole LeFavour.

LeFavour, a Democrat who walks to work, favors raising the fuel tax, which makes those who use the roads the most pay for them. And she thinks cities ought to be able to define their own transit plans.

"If you personally hate public transportation, that's fine," LeFavour said. "But when you hurt the state by refusing to let other people use it or build it, what kind of leadership is that? How can you ever stay in office?"

That is part of what the Moving Idaho Forward people must consider. If they wait for the Legislature to get more urban in coming years, they may have a better shot. But at the same time, public transit corridors are getting crammed with houses, and asphalt is not getting any cheaper.

It's been repeated again and again that local decision-making is a conservative idea. That granting the authority for a local tax is not the same as raising the tax. That if people don't like it—including Otter—they don't have to vote for it.

Little—who is from a still-rural district with links to the Boise Valley—said it's easy.

"The biggest need is in the Treasure Valley," he said gleefully. "The Treasure Valley ought to provide some of the money."

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