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Idaho highway panel could set tone of 2011 session

The 2011 Idaho Legislature could be a rancorous session pitting truckers against drivers of smaller vehicles over how much they pay for road work. Or highway funding could become just a side issue, delayed yet again as lawmakers refuse to hike taxes while the economy emerges from the doldrums.

Much of this depends on what a task force tells Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to adopt as his top transportation goals when it meets on Nov. 23 at the Idaho Capitol, where it’s due to give its final recommendations.

The 15-member committee was formed after the Republican chief executive had to ditch his ambitious but widely panned plan to help fill an estimated $240 million highway funding gap during the 2009 Legislature, as lawmakers drove his proposals – for a gas tax hike, registration fee increases and taxes on rental cars – one after another into a ditch.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who chaired the task force, concedes conservative lawmakers remain resistant to raising taxes even two years later, an atmosphere that will make immediate or sweeping changes to the system difficult or impossible even as Idaho falls further behind on road and bridge maintenance.

“I sense that everybody wants to do something, but everybody is reluctant to do anything that’s going to look like it’s going to put more stress on taxpayers and highway users in this kind of economy,” Little told The Associated Press Nov. 19.

Little’s transportation panel has weighed in once already, at least tentatively.

In July, a proposal to raise the 25 cent tax on fuels, by an amount that wasn’t specified, won the most support.

Each one-penny hike would raise $8.2 million.

Other top picks included a proposed 1 percent sales tax on fuel to raise $22.5 million annually, as well as a plan to index the fuel tax to inflation. Had that been done since 1996, drivers would pay a 34 cent tax per gallon now, producing $74 million for roads.

That same month, the committee received a hotly disputed report from highway consultants they’d hired concluding passenger car drivers pay a disproportionate share of highway maintenance costs, compared with the heavy interstate trucks that often rumble through bound for destinations beyond Idaho’s borders.

The study from Richland, Wash.-based Battelle concluded cars are overpaying by 8 percent to 26 percent, while heavy trucks that do more damage underpay by 14 percent to 27 percent, depending on several scenarios used by the consultants. Other scenarios found the disparity even wider.

Back in 1994, the study found, passenger car drivers were actually underpaying, compared with big trucks.

But that relationship has been reversed over the last 16 years due, in part, to a court ruling in 2000 that chucked a two-tiered registration system was unconstitutional because it gave Idaho truckers an unfair advantage over out-of-state haulers.

The new system, adopted by lawmakers in 2000 along with a $27 million settlement with the American Trucking Association, has cost Idaho nearly $12 million annually, according to Idaho Transportation Department estimates.

AAA of Idaho, the driver’s group that’s been following Otter’s task force closely, fears the Nov. 23 recommendations will fall short of tackling this disparity, in large part because of the might of the trucking industry and its lobbyists.

“There’s a bigger push to support a business industry in Idaho, as opposed to what is the right tax policy,” said Dave Carlson, AAA’s Idaho lobbyist.

Kathy Fowers, of the Idaho Trucking Association, has disputed the Battelle study’s finding, arguing its conclusions – that trucks should pay more – would endanger an industry that already drives on 1 percent to 3 percent profit margins.

Her members would support a 5 percent hike in registration fees and a 6 cent diesel tax increase, from 25 cents now.

Given an Idaho economy that’s only in its infant stages of a recovery, however, Fowers doesn’t think Otter’s committee will have the stomach to recommend even that – at least not immediately.

“I don’t think they’ll be any tax increase this year,” she told the AP. “The economy isn’t such that they should do anything, especially for the trucking industry.”

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