Gas tax hike, education among big legislative issues

BOISE -- There will be plenty of big issues debated in the Idaho Legislature this session (starting next week), two of those are likely to be education and improving Idaho's transportation infrastructure.

"We have 700 bridges in this state that are deficient, thousands of roads that are beyond repair. And this price tag that we've known about for years of 260-million-plus keeps adding up. Something has to be done," said KTVB political analyst Dr. Jim Weatherby.

According to Weatherby, that price tag is why lawmakers, who would love to improve Idaho's roads and bridges, haven't done much about it. Idahoans would have to foot that hefty bill through increased car registration fees and a higher gas tax. Fundamentally, Idaho's conservative Legislature shies away from tax increases of any kind, but if it were to ever happen, now might be the time. Idaho currently has gas prices lower than the national average, and lower than they've been here in six years.

"I think there might be an opportunity," said Weatherby. "There is an ideological resistance to any kind of tax increase on the part of a significant number of legislators. But, if there was ever an opportune moment it would seem to be now with the gas prices so low and the recognition that the 25-cent gas tax we had as of 1996 has shrunk to about 17-cents in purchasing power today."

Meanwhile, the Governor's Task Force on Improving Education has received bipartisan support for its 20 recommendations presented in late 2013. Those recommendations range from teacher pay to Idaho Core Standards. But those ideas are not a slam dunk to pass through the Legislature, according to Weatherby. "The question is, 'Will there be the will to fund the task force recommendations over a five-year period?' The governor says $35 million-a-year over five years would fund those recommendations."

To that point, earlier in the week, new Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said she wanted to wait a year to implement a teacher licensure and gradual teacher pay raise plan recommended by the task force and already approved by the State Board.

"The Devil's in the details," said Ybarra. "Tiered licensure is looking pretty good, but there are some details that still need to be worked out. There are still some school districts that have some questions."

Ybarra will present her proposed budget to the Legislature at the end of the month. She says she wants to restore operational funding, which is another recommendation from the task force, another idea that will cost money, and another recommendation in doubt.

Another such recommendation was the Idaho Education Network, designed to provide bandwidth to every Idaho high school, which recently hit a snag as a judge ruled an involved bidding process was flawed. It will cost money and that means its future is uncertain.

"Certainly that is very much in doubt," said Weatherby. "In terms of the status of the federal funding and what it might cost the state in terms of keeping that system going."


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