A special legislative committee is calling for an increase in state spending on road and bridge work of about $75 million a year, citing increased fuel taxes and registration fees along with a major general tax revenue diversion as the best way to pay the bill.
The House-Senate panel also has proposed giving cities and counties local option authority to impose their own taxes or user fees to raise cash needed to pay for their own critical highway work.And it recommended that $17 million be diverted from the state's cash surplus as soon as possible after lawmakers convene in January so work can begin immediately on the most pressing state highway system proj-ects. About $34.5 million is in a special surplus account, with another $40 million expected to be built up over the next eight months.
"I think the citizens will help us and support some of our recommendations," Sen. Herb Carlson, R-Eagle, said. "I think people in the state of Idaho want our roads and bridges brought up to standard."
The general agreement on an approach to deal with an estimated $7 billion in needed but backlogged highway maintenance and construction by the joint committee wrapped up days of hearings throughout the state that began last summer.
The additional revenue target of $75 million falls short of the $98.6 million the Transportation Board said was needed at both the state and local levels just to keep that backlog from growing. But committee members and transportation officials conceded the lower target might even be difficult to achieve, and if it is they suggested that revenue raised by local governments through the proposed local option taxing authority could go a long way toward making up the difference.
Attacking the backlog itself would be left to whatever money might be left if current maintenance and construction responsibilities cost less than estimated each year. The Transportation Board estimated another $107 million a year in extra cash would be needed to eliminate the backlog over the next 20 years.
The state currently raises just over $162 million from a combination of fuel taxes and permit, license and registration fees.
To reach the $75 million target, the committee's preferred option involved a three-cent-a-gallon increase in the state's 18-cent-a-gallon fuel tax, doubling the registration fees for all vehicles and then simply diverting what would total $27.5 million in general tax receipts now used to finance other government programs like education, prisons and social services.
The committee made no recommendations for replacing that general tax money. Rep. Dean Haagenson, R-Coeur d'Alene, conceded that the plan relied on the state economy continuing the strong growth that has produced general tax receipts well in excess of the projections of analysts.
The current light vehicle registration fee averages $22 although it is assessed based on the age of the vehicle. Truck registration fees now range from $30 to $515.
The financing diversion would be accomplished by fully underwriting operations of the State Police, now covered by about $10 million in fuel tax and registration money, with general tax receipts and simply earmarking the revenue generated by a quarter-cent of the state sales tax, now estimated at $17.5 million, for highway work.
The precedent for using general tax money and cash from the state surplus for road and bridge work was set last winter when lawmakers siphoned $15.5 million from the state's $50 million budget reserve fund for an election-year pork-barrel statewide road and bridge aid bill that Gov. Cecil Andrus acceded to. That work has traditionally been financed with highway user fees like the fuel tax and local property taxes.
The panel's preferred option gained the support of five of the eight members. A second alternative that differed only in calling for a two-cent rather than a three-cent fuel tax hike was supported by four members.
Two other options, including one that proposed a $26.5 million statewide property tax dedicated to road work, received only a vote or two.
But while the committee said its report to the full Legislature would cite the preferred alternative to underwriting the program, the other options would be cited to give the responsible regular legislative committees a combination of alternatives to consider.