During the legislative session, many ideas were kicked around about providing more funding for transportation. The most interesting idea was one that never came to legislative floors.
The Idaho Statesman called for a 25-cent increase in the fuel tax – doubling the state’s tax. The Statesman reasoned that a 25-cent increase would be a “stealth move” by the Legislature. The logic is that people wouldn’t notice it at all if prices stayed down, and they’d forget about it when they went back up near the $4 level. It’s a political version of the old shell game.
Doubling the gas tax is an easy thing to write for someone who is making a high salary (by Idaho standards), lives in a comfortable home and enjoys the fruits of career success. But it’s no bargain for people who are struggling, which is a large portion of the state.
When I read the editorial, my first thought was about the old neighborhoods where I grew up in Kellogg, places that look as shabby today as they did 60 years ago. Well, people are still living in those old homes. And some have to drive 45 miles each way to Coeur d’Alene for employment, if they are lucky enough to have jobs. Folks in those wonderful old neighborhoods wouldn’t view a 25-cent increase in the gas tax as a “stealth move” toward anything, other than bankruptcy.
Then I thought about legislators representing communities such as Cottonwood, Dalton Gardens and New Plymouth – areas that have similar economic challenges.
“If I imposed that kind of burden on constituents, I would fire myself,” said Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale. “People were calling my house and sending me emails about 7 cents. What would it be like with 25 cents?”
In one recent conversation with a Democrat legislator, Boyle said she was asked if she received any calls or messages from constituents demanding lawmakers to raise the fuel tax and registration fees to pay for roads.
“I didn’t get one call, but I’ve had plenty of calls the other way,” Boyle said. “The Democrat, from Boise, said he received one call – from a lady whose husband worked for a large road contractor. After that conversation, I began asking around and there were no great demands for higher taxes.”
The Legislature approved $95 million in funding, which doesn’t nearly cover the state’s $262 million shortfall. But Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness recognizes the progress.
“For every one in Idaho who will benefit from better roads and bridges, I thank the Legislature for providing this much-needed operation funding,” Ness said. “This is a good start. It will reduce traffic bottlenecks that inhibit mobility. It will help sustain Idaho’s economic recovery. It will make Idaho’s roads safer and save lives.”
Lawmakers took some criticism for taking money from the general fund to pay for roads. The arbiters of “doing what’s right for Idaho” suggest that legislators simply should forget that Idaho is a poor state, ignore the wishes of their constituents and raise taxes. But in the financially strapped rural communities, priorities go beyond the state’s general fund.
“We started the session with a surplus of $164 million, and during the session $88 million more came in,” Boyle said. “And we’re asking people to pay more?”
As Boyle observes, there’s no end to how much can be raised in taxes. Idaho could increase the sales tax to 10 cents, double the corporate tax rate and eliminate all exemptions, “and that wouldn’t be enough. They’d come up with something else.”
And there’s no end to how much even a “conservative” Legislature will spend, she said.
The Legislature’s decision to give $95 million for roads may not be good enough for some of the taxoholics writing editorials. But in a state like Idaho, no agency is going to get all the money that’s wanted, or even needed.
“We knew we were not going to get $262 million,” said Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and leading supporter of more road funding. “But what we did was a good down payment.”
Getting a 7-cent increase in the gas tax was a monumental accomplishment for this Legislature, which six years ago turned down a 2-cent increase.
Raising the gas tax by 25 cents might work … in California, but not Idaho.