Former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter was prescient when he warned lawmakers against raiding the source of money for Idaho’s schools to pay for highways.
For proof, look no further than the state’s latest transportation package.
A few years back, Otter promised to veto any transportation bill that dipped into the general fund — the sales and income tax-funded account that pays for public schools, higher education and other state government services. Until then, the people who used Idaho’s roads and bridges paid for them through fuel taxes and registration fees. Otter was correct in his assessment that once lawmakers breached that precedent, they’d never stop.
Unfortunately, Otter did not follow his own advice.
So in exchange for a modest rise in fuel taxes and registration fees, the governor went along with a plan that used one-time surplus toward highways.
But lawmakers didn’t stop with surplus. They eventually snagged a permanent 1 percent share of sales tax revenues for transportation.
It’s about to get worse.
First, Gov. Brad Little has signed into law a measure that shifts $126 million from the general fund surplus into transportation — $40 million for local departments and the rest to the state.
Next, the Legislature is on tap to expand the permanent, annual raiding of that same account.
Idaho lawmakers want to increase that funding to 4½ percent of sales tax proceeds, or $67 million for roads and bridges. About $22.5 million of that will go to local highway districts. The rest will be allocated toward Idaho’s Transportation Expansion and Congestion Mitigation Fund. With that money, the state hopes to bond about $1 billion toward repairing highways and bridges plus doing something to address the congestion brought on by growth.
Never mind that Idaho has raised fuel taxes only twice in 25 years. Apparently hitting consumers at the pump is a political third rail — although only a handful of Idaho lawmakers objected this year when the fuel marketers successfully erased Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s ability to root out price gouging during a declared emergency.
Never mind that a major source of highway revenue goes untapped. For more than a decade, it’s been clear that heavy truck operators are getting a nice break in Idaho. According to the government contractor Battelle, which looked into the situation, heavy trucks pay about 27 percent less than what it costs the state to build longer freeway exit and entrance ramps, higher overpasses, stronger bridges and repair the damage heavy trucks inflict on pavement.
Ordinary drivers are paying about 26 percent more than their share.
In 2017, a second company, Texas-based D’Artagan Consulting, agreed with those findings.
The Legislature called for a system of charging trucks a more equitable fee. But key lawmakers, notably House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, refused to even hear of it.
The gap between Idaho’s resources and its needs — not only highway and bridge repairs but coping with growth-related congestion — is approaching $400 million every year. If user fees are out and a powerful trucking lobby refuses to budge, what remains is the path of least resistance.
Before they recessed to deal with a rising surge of COVID-19 infections among their ranks, lawmakers overwhelming voted to dip deeper into the general fund. Only four House members —Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, Steve Berch, D-Boise, John McCrostie, D-Garden City, and Sally Toone, D-Gooding — voted no.
The measure is headed to the state Senate.
As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press noted, digging into the general fund isn’t Little’s first choice.
But that ship has sailed.
It’s not as if Idaho schools are flush with money. Even with the state budget in surplus, Idaho spends less per pupil than virtually any other state. Supplemental property tax levies continue to rise to make up for inadequate state support. There’s talk of putting untrained college graduates in schools that can’t afford to compete for qualified teachers.
If it’s this bad now when the state can expect billions in federal stimulus relief dollars, what happens when the federal spigot runs dry? What will the state do when Idaho’s housing bubble bursts, ending the economic boom and with it, the state’s budget surplus?
When lawmakers face an even starker choice between pupils and potholes, what will they pick?
You already know the answer, don’t you? — M.T.