Of all the subjects under the purview of Idaho government and politics, few ought to be less controversial than roads and road repair.
There’s no dispute that this is something state government ought to be doing. There’s no disagreement anywhere about the need for good roads, and that we need them for all sorts of reasons. And yet roads – or rather, paying for their upkeep, repair and the occasional expansion – have been in recent years the most difficult subject for Idaho governors and legislatures for reaching common ground.
Roads were the reason for the longest legislative session in Idaho history, in 2003. Roads got then-newbie Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter into big fights with the legislature right from his first session, and in 2009 roads funding was the main driver behind the second-longest legislative session in Idaho history.
And here we may be again. Right on schedule, even.
Otter’s case for road and bridge work was touched on quickly in his State of the State address, but it was compelling. He said, “We know that after education, investing in infrastructure is among the smartest, most cost-effective and frankly essential uses of taxpayers' dollars to promote the public’s general welfare and sustain economic growth.” He’d probably not get much argument with that from the public – he pointed out surveys showing similar attitudes among Idahoans – or even among most legislators.
“We already have 785 state and local bridges in Idaho that are over 50 years old and considered structurally deficient. That number will grow to almost 900 bridges by 2019 even after completing work on the 68 for which we already have funding.”
And yet . . . it costs money. A lot of money.
Otter on that: “Chairmen Brackett and Palmer, legislative leaders, I am not going to stand here and tell you how to swallow this elephant. That would be contrary to all we have learned about each other and the people we serve in recent years. But we all know it must be done. I welcome financially responsible legislation that addresses steady, ongoing and sustainable transportation infrastructure in Idaho; however, I will NOT entertain proposals aimed at competing for General Fund tax dollars with education and our other required public programs or services.”
Sounds as if, on one hand, Otter is unwilling to trap himself into proposing a specific tax increase (which might fail), but on the other, telling legislators they have to do it, on whatever their own terms may be . . . so long as they’re not cutting other budgets to do it, which is another way of saying a tax increase will be needed. And Otter appeared to be saying he would veto any attempt to violate that proscription.
That would usually indicate a gas tax increase would be in the works. Given the wonderfully low price of gas right now, that may be the case. (The low price of gas also might help with gas tax revenues, since people may be buying more gallons than they were before.)
But the phrases “tax increase” and “Idaho legislature” haven’t gone together easily in recent years. Maybe recognizing that, Otter also proposed a few tax cuts – a sweetener for some legislators? – but at least one of those is likely to balloon over the next few years, slicing into state revenues.
What’s in development is an echo of those bitter road battles over the last dozen or so years. Don’t be too surprised if this shapes up as a longer, rather than a shorter, session.