When Brian Ness was hired to run the Idaho Transportation Department in 2010, he promised never to ask for more money until he could prove it would be spent wisely.
That day has come.
After three years focusing on internal efficiencies, Ness told the joint budget committee Monday, it's time for lawmakers to look for additional revenue and address the growing shortfall in highway maintenance funding.
"You may recall that the (governor's 2010) task force concluded transportation in Idaho is underfunded by $543 million annually," he said. "Of that, $262 million is needed just to preserve the system in the condition it's in. I want to stress, the governor's office and ITD don't have a legislative proposal to address that this year - but we agree it's time to start having the discussion."
The last such debate took place in 2009, and it ended in stinging defeat for Gov. Butch Otter.
Raising fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees was Otter's top legislative priority that year, but lawmakers balked at the $175 million price tag. They spurned his compromise proposals as well, so he vetoed 25 appropriation bills and forced them to stay in session until May. A face-saving go-home bill eventually settled on $56 million in new funding, but almost half of that was repealed the following year.
House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said the concerns expressed in 2009 are still relevant today.
"One of the big issues for me was, we were dealing with the gas tax," he said. "I didn't think it was fair that electric cars or hybrids paid less than regular cars."
And even if an equitable revenue source can be identified, he said, $262 million may be too big a hurdle to cross.
"I don't see it happening," Crane said. "Even if Director Ness can make the case that we need it, I don't see my constituents saying they're willing to take that on."
Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, was chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee in 2009. Although she agrees on the need for more maintenance money and thinks Ness and the transportation department have done a good job addressing the Legislature's concerns about internal efficiencies, she remains opposed to increasing the fuel tax.
"The idea I've been pushing for six years is that we should take the sales tax off tires and other vehicle accessories," she said. "There's a lot of money there, and it's the least painful thing to do."
The governor's 2010 task force looked at about 40 different revenue options. Auto parts and accessories generates an estimated $108 million per year in state sales tax revenue, but that money currently goes to the general fund to pay for schools and other government services.
The task force's preferred alternatives included raising the gas tax (a 1-cent increase generates an estimated $8.2 million per year), imposing a transfer fee on fuel distributors ($10.25 million) or adding a 3 percent excise tax on car rental fees ($1 million).
Indexing the fuel tax to inflation and raising it to 34 cents per gallon - up from 25 today - would generate an estimated $74 million.
Ness highlighted several changes the transportation department has made in recent years to improve efficiencies and make sure it's using its current appropriation wisely.
For example, the agency has reduced the layers of management from nine to five and hired more front-line personnel. More than 60 "supervisory" positions were eliminated, because they supervised just one person.
The project-selection pro-cess also was restructured to take economic development opportunities into account.