Lawmakers were supposed to be home this weekend, having finished the legislative session that began in January. Instead, they’ll head back to work Monday in the hopes of finding common ground on two major issues: tax cuts and transportation.
Passing legislation on even one of these issues will be a tall order, let alone both, because lawmakers in the Senate seem so far apart from their counterparts in the House.
On tax relief, the Senate wants to repeal the grocery tax. The House wants to cut income taxes.
On road funding, there’s urgency in both chambers for some sort of transportation package, but the Senate seems wary of using GARVEE bonds, which allow states to borrow against future federal funding.
So what to do?
We’ve advocated for the repeal of the grocery tax before, and we still think it is good policy to remove a tax that disproportionately hurts the poor. But more than anything else, we believe transportation funding is the issue on which lawmakers should focus this week.
Take a look around: Idaho’s roads are crumbling. We’re just now coming out of a severe winter that absolutely devastated roads. Potholes are everywhere. The last major infrastructure investment to come out of the Statehouse was two years ago, and even then the bill was criticized for being too anemic – it was a nice bump, but not nearly enough to begin to address the state’s road woes.
Now, Canyon County lawmakers are threatening to force the Legislature to stay in session until money is devoted to fixing Interstate 84 and other roads to relieve traffic problems.
Funny how legislative sessions turn out. At the beginning of this one, almost nobody was talking about transportation funding. That all changed with the flooding problems we saw first-hand here in the Magic Valley.
After lawmakers toured the damage, the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which sets the state’s budgets, approved a $52 million plan to take excess revenue and put it into emergency infrastructure repair. This also means that federal disaster declarations could bring a 75 percent federal match for the money on some qualifying projects. The bill has an emergency clause that would free up the funding the moment the governor signs the bill.
As Speaker Scott Bedke said at the time, “That was not on anyone’s radar here at the first of the session. It is now.”
At the very least, lawmakers should approve this funding package to help rebuild southern Idaho roads destroyed by winter wear and the flooding that followed. Some lawmakers are still holding out hope the package could be rolled into something much larger as part of a grand compromise on statewide road funding.
What that looks like is still unclear, especially because the Senate has already struck down a massive $300 million GARVEE bill.
Whatever happens, Magic Valley lawmakers are likely to be at the center of the discussions. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, said he is still talking to colleagues in both the Senate and House, trying to work out a deal.
And late last week, Bedke, a Republican from Oakley, said he’s committed to doing something about infrastructure before lawmakers leave town.
“I still feel strongly that we can’t leave without addressing the roads issue,” he said.
We do, too, especially since the legislative session so far has been marred by inaction and GOP infighting. Lawmakers did nothing about health care policy, gay and transgender anti-discrimination protections or changing the state’s law that shields parents who practice faith-healing from prosecution under child-injury laws.
A transportation bill might allow some legislators to save face, especially if they represent districts where roads are the worst.
Lawmakers have made clear their goals for this week. Now they just have to find the road map to the finish.