BOISE — The Idaho Senate has passed a bill to repeal the state’s tax on groceries and accompanying tax credit, but it killed a major transportation funding bill, throwing into question what sort of deal will emerge or whether lawmakers will end the session on Friday as planned.
Senators voted 25-10 Wednesday to end the grocery tax credit next year and to stop taxing grocery sales as of June 1, 2018, sending back to the House where it began as an income tax credit bill. The Senate rewrote it last week, turning it into grocery tax repeal instead. Currently, groceries are taxed at the same 6 percent rate as most other items.
“By and large this is about as equal a tax break for folks as we’re going to see,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who has been calling for repeal since his first campaign in 2008. “Everybody buys food.”
Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Rupert, who opposed repeal, said he wasn’t against the idea but that his constituents have been telling him to fund education and transportation infrastructure, not get rid of the grocery tax.
“I do not disagree with the legislation,” he said. “I just think it’s the wrong year.”
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said last week he opposes repealing the grocery tax, but he didn’t explicitly say he would veto the bill were it to reach his desk.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Senate voted 15-20 to kill a bill that would have, among other transportation funding measures, borrowed $300 million for new road projects and repaid it with future federal highway funds. These are known as “GARVEE” bonds.
Senators from the Treasure Valley, especially, argued in favor of the bill — much of the $300 million would have likely gone to repair and expand a congested and accident-prone stretch of Interstate 84 in Canyon County, between Karcher and Franklin junctions.
“I think this is badly needed,” said Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian. “Our infrastructure needs to be expanded.”
Other senators, though, took issue with borrowing so much to build new roads when the state is still hundreds of millions short on what it needs to maintain the roads it has.
“I would submit to you that borrowing money is nothing more than a tax,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said he is still talking to his colleagues in both the Senate and House, trying to work out a transportation funding deal.
“I want to be optimistic that we’ll get something,” he said.
“They want to do something, we want to do something,” said Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot.”
Brent and other House members whose districts include parts of Canyon County held an impromptu press conference Wednesday afternoon to pitch the importance of repairing that stretch of highway, saying it is both an economic development and public safety issue.
“I traveled that roadway last night and there was an accident when I went through,” said Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa.
Also, said Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, getting it done would free up money for other projects.
There is another GARVEE bonds bill pending in the Senate, although given that some senators said their problem with the other bill was the bonds, it remains to be seen what would happen if the Senate takes it up Thursday. There is also a $52 million emergency bill, intended to fund repairs to road damage caused by this year’s harsh winter, that the Senate passed but the House is holding as the chambers negotiate a bigger transportation funding deal.
“All bills are still in play,” Crane said.
Lawmakers have been aiming throughout the session to adjourn on Friday. Brackett said there has been talk that the session might continue into the next week if a transportation funding deal isn’t reached before then.
“We could be looking at being here next week,” he said. “It’s that important.”
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, is still hoping to finish the Legislature’s work on time.
“We’re still pushing hard for Friday, and I still believe this is a possible chance that we may be able to adjourn sine die on Friday,” he said at the end of Wednesday’s session.