Gov. Butch Otter did about all he could do politically to get the wheels moving on transportation funding for Idaho. Now it’s up to Gov.-elect Brad Little to finish the job.
Otter made a valiant effort in early years as governor, pushing for a two-cent increase in the gas tax. But his idea was shot down by House conservatives in 2009, when legislators were slashing budgets in response to the recession. Killing the road tax was a major victory for conservatives, especially in the House.
But the victory was a short-sighted one. Idaho is the nation’s fastest-growing state, yet there has been minimal commitment (beyond wishful thinking) to improve the condition of roads and bridges. Otter outlined his thoughts in a recent talk to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“If I had one suggestion that I was not able to accomplish that I would like to see the next governor and the next Legislature to pay attention to, it’s deferred maintenance. I have tried to convince, unsuccessfully, the Legislature to get more money,” he said in a story written by Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press.
Little, for one, does not need a pep talk about transportation funding. He brought up the issue many times during his campaign for governor, and his first State of the State message to the Legislature in January gives him an opportunity to push forward with an aggressive transportation plan. Leadership needs to come from the top.
Rep. Joe Palmer of Meridian, who chairs the House transportation committee, is all for more money for transportation. He acknowledges that better roads are good for the economy, as well as the quality of life for Idahoans. The question is where the money is going to come from, which always is a sticking point in the Legislature.
“I definitely feel we need to put more money into transportation, but I’m not supportive of raising taxes and we should be careful about borrowing more money,” Palmer said.
Palmer thinks more money should come from the general fund – which covers schools, prisons and health care needs.
“A few years ago, we took one percent of the sales tax and moved it into transportation. Everyone was panicking over that, as if the sun wasn’t going to come up the next day, and it had no affect on anything whatsoever,” Palmer said. “I think if we did another one like that, we could get transportation in a position where we can get ahead of the problem instead of being behind it.”
Taking money from the general fund makes sense, he says. “As the economy keeps growing, we have more money every year. We need to dedicate more of that to transportation, rather than growing government.”
Now, you get a glimpse of what Otter faced when he mentioned the nasty “T” word a decade ago. Give the governor credit for at least attempting to show leadership – and darts to the Legislature for ignoring his plea. As he told the chamber, the problem with roads and bridges have only gotten worse.
“I still believe we’re about $280 million short of fixing the highways and bridges,” Otter said. He said in Russell’s story that half of the state’s 4,500 bridges will reach the end of their useful life in the next 10 years.
So, it’s going to take more than a Salvation Army bucket drop – which in relative terms is about all the Legislature has offered since Otter’s gas tax plan fell flat a decade ago – to fix the problem with roads and bridges.
Otter compares the $280 million shortfall to the national debt that politicians ran up in Washington, D.C. “It’s deficit spending,” he said of the failure to address Idaho’s transportation needs.
He’s correct, of course. But the Idaho Legislature has never allowed sound reasoning to get in the way of short-sighted action. Maybe legislators will pay more attention to a new governor presenting a different approach.
Or, Brad Little’s “honeymoon” period with the Legislature will be a short one – depending on how hard he pushes on the issue.