Over the objections of the Idaho State Police, an Idaho House panel voted 10-7 on Tuesday in favor of legislation to phase out, over five years, the more than $17 million in highway funds that currently go to ISP, instead shifting that money to roads.
ISP Deputy Director Kedrick Wills spoke against the bill, saying that’s currently the funding source for 42 percent of his patrol budget. Wills told the House Transportation Committee that ISP currently has 146 state troopers on the road, though a study several years ago suggested it needs 88 more than that. “We understand that the proper role of government is public safety, we understand that very clearly,” Wills said. “For us at ISP, we’re interested in not having more roadways necessarily in Idaho – we’re interested in having safe roadways.”
Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, who chairs the committee and proposed the bill, said, “I have no intention whatsoever to take any money away from ISP in any form. The transportation system is in dire straits. We are lacking drastically, I think everybody understands that. This is money that can be used there.”
He said his bill, HB 157, would start the transfer not next year, but the year after, and phase it in over five years. That would allow time for the Legislature to replace the ISP’s dedicated highway funds with general fund dollars. Starting in fiscal year 2019, lawmakers would have to come up with a little over $3 million more each year in general funds if they want to avoid cutting ISP’s budget.
Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, a former longtime state trooper and former U.S. marshal for Idaho, signed up to testify against the bill even though he serves on the committee. “There’s no guarantee – nobody can guarantee that the money is going to be there to take up the slack when we remove this,” he said. “ISP can’t lobby, they can’t compete with education, they can’t compete with transportation, they can’t compete with Health and Welfare.”
Wayne Hammon of the Associated General Contractors of Idaho, former state budget director for Gov. Butch Otter, spoke in favor of the bill. “It was my job during the recession to cut budgets, including the ISP budget, and it’s not easy. It’s painful, it’s horrible,” he said. “Patrol is underfunded. … They could definitely use more resources. But I think this is a safety issue – this is a safety issue of our roads are falling apart.”
He noted that House members have pushed for the past four years to shift general fund money to roads, but the Senate’s been unwilling; Idaho funds transportation solely from dedicated funds that come from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees and flow into a state highway fund, and from federal allocations. “This is a place we can take money that is already in the transportation system and keep it there,” he said.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, noted the Idaho Constitution’s provision that says that the state’s gas taxes and vehicle registration fees “shall be used exclusively for the construction, repair, maintenance and traffic supervision of the public highways of this state.” That’s the provision under which 5 percent of the state’s highway fund long has gone to ISP.
“I am going to vote to keep that dedicated piece to make sure we do have safe roads,” she said. “That is a constitutional piece I do value.”
Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, said, “I have not supported this in the past because of my support for ISP and for law enforcement, and that hasn’t wavered.” But she said Palmer’s version this year is “more palatable, because we can fill a $3 million hole a lot easier than a $17 million one.”
“For me it’s critical that we keep ISP whole,” she said. “But I do think that it’s time for us as a transportation committee to start meeting the infrastructure needs of the state. For too long, for too many years before some of us got here, that can got kicked down the road.”
Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, said, “I totally support the need for transportation funds – we’ve gotta have ‘em. You know I serve as a local highway commissioner. I know what condition our roads are in, particularly after this winter.” While saying he’s “torn,” Youngblood noted that ISP already is asking for more money. With the bill, he said, “I’m just afraid we might be digging a deeper hole than we already have.”
The committee vote sends the bill to the full House for debate. To become law, it still needs to pass both there and in the Senate and receive the governor’s signature.