The focus of good policy creation should be on creating policy that helps us meet our most necessary goals, eliminate waste and make the tax burden as least damaging as possible.
Currently, the Idaho legislature is struggling with transportation funding. Bridges are in unsafe condition, infrastructure is failing, and the state has fallen behind in providing for upkeep. To make an analogy to personal finances, we have been putting off paying our credit card debts, and the interest is overwhelming. How overwhelming? In Idaho, we have failed to keep our maintenance budget adequately funded by about $262 million dollars annually. That is a huge number. By not addressing the problem, we have created a fiscal issue that threatens to cripple our economic health.
The unfortunate reality of transportation funding in Idaho must be taken in the context of the other issues we continue to face, including a genuine need to continue to improve on our constitutional duty to provide for a public education, our moral imperative to provide for educational choice, costs associated with providing health care for the uninsured, and the reality that funding all of these priorities and others must be done as exactly as possible to narrow the burden on taxpayers. It is a difficult dichotomy that we face as policy makers knowing that reducing funding to education, health care and transportation hurts our taxpayers and economy, but also knowing that creating that revenue through taxation hurts taxpayers and the economy as well.
Idaho has not been adjusting to our needs over time. We will not be able to fix our transportation needs overnight. Part of the blame lies with politics, but part of the problem is also attributable to the fact that our scheme for transportation is outdated. In regards to transportation funding, it has long been thought that the most fair approach is to place the cost burden for the roads on those who use the roads. That approach has included the gas tax, with the thinking being that gas consumption is related to use of the roads. That is more true in the past than it is now. Now, cars that get good gas mileage pay less in user fees because they aren’t paying a gas tax. Furthermore, people that can afford newer, more gas efficient vehicles are using a benefit that, if we were to raise the gas tax to meet our ends, is being funded by unfairly shifting cost to those that cannot afford newer, more gas efficient vehicles. While there is a legitimate argument that lighter, more gas efficient vehicles do not damage the roads as much as less fuel-efficient vehicles and that we should incentivize more efficiency, if we accept the premise that users should contribute to infrastructure, allowing use of the roads for virtually no cost is not good policy. Combine that reality with the fact that a gas increase to meet the current need would need to be somewhere around thirty additional cents per gallon, and the regressive nature of a gas tax increase to fix our current crisis is painfully apparent.
Fixing big problems requires sacrifice, and as always, we are looking at ways to tighten spending, and focus our efforts. However, the answer to our transportation funding crisis is an opportunity to restructure our taxes and spending in a fair manner. There are many of us working on the issue in Boise, and we will continue to assure accountability both in regards to spending and in regards to meeting our obligations. As always, your participation is both necessary and welcome. We look forward to hearing from you.
Rep. Luke Malek is a Republican from Coeur d'Alene. He's hosting a town hall Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Coeur d'Alene Library.