Begging Otter's forgiveness, Idaho Commerce Director Sayer speaks of sore spot: neglected roads

The biggest disappointment of Gov. Butch Otter's six years in office is likely his inability to convince lawmakers to raise new revenue for roads and bridges.

Rebuffed by the Legislature in 2008 and 2009, he appointed a Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding in 2009. Fifteen months later, the group agreed state and local highway funding was short by $543 million annually -- made up of $262 million in operation, preservation and restoration; and $281 million in capacity and safety enhancement.

Despite prodding by Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who chaired the 15-member group, the task force refused to vote on a series of revenue proposals in November 2010.

More than two years later, a tax-shy Otter still hasn't made another run at a comprehensive funding effort. Instead, he's focusing his 2013 agenda on a personal property tax cut on business equipment and establishing a state-run health insurance exchange.

But Commerce Director Jeff Sayer broached the topic Thursday at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative forum to a crowd loaded with lawmakers and with Otter at the head table.

"I apologize in advance to the governor," Sayer began. "I know things are tight and I'm not saying we have to do it this year. I'm just saying we've got to elevate that conversation.

"We have companies across the state of Idaho that their trade and their access to markets is limited by how wide the roads are, how wide the turnouts are. We have issues we have to deal with and we've got to bring those to the forefront."

Sayer then noted that Transportation Director Brian Ness has been quietly working on a package to boost highway funding. "Director Ness has done some amazing work," Sayer said. "He has some ideas and he's holding back because he knows that this may not be the right time. But if you have some interest in what he's thinking, go find him and have him show you what he's put together."

Sayer said one new tool could offer relief, a proposal to establish Transportation Economic Development Zones (TEDZ). The measure would designate future sales taxes to pay off debt on transportation projects that benefit the economy. The chamber also has endorsed the idea.

I spoke with Otter after Sayer's speech. He said no apology was necessary from his subordinate.

"He's talking about things we need to be talking about," Otter said.

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