Once upon a time, in a conservative Western state with a significant LDS population, some citizens – concerned about traffic congestion and the increasing pollution in the valley location of its capital city – wanted public transit to help take the load off the beleaguered highway system. Stymied due to a lack of funds, they found themselves trying to convince a largely rural state Legislature that the affected counties should have the right to tax themselves to pay for it.
Sound familiar? It should. Except this story is about Utah.
But Utah’s story has a happy ending. The citizens convinced the Legislature, the population approved the tax, the system was built, and ridership is double what the experts predicted – for 2020.
The tipping factor Utah had on its side is one thing Idaho lacks: the strong support of its business community.
“Business leaders were out in front on this,” said Lane Beattie, head of the Salt Lake City chamber of commerce, speaking at the City Club of Boise. “That’s why it was successful.”
But Idaho’s business community is not getting behind the effort the way that Utah’s business community did. Consider:
The Idaho Association for Commerce and Industry, arguably the state’s largest business lobby, has little to say about public transit except in a negative sense. “[T]here will be growing demands for local option taxes to address transportation, and, though there may be opposition to local option taxation on a philosophical front, there is a chance such legislation may be successful if the funds were directed toward road building rather than only public transit as in the past legislative session.”
Instead, IACI’s main focus this legislative session is the freezing and gradual reduction of the so-called personal property tax on business equipment, which applies to tools, equipment, furniture and other tangible items related to their operation. This tax contributes on the order of $100 million annually to the state – revenue that would have to be replaced from some other source – but legislative leadership appears to consider its loss a foregone conclusion.
To a certain extent, the Legislature committed to removing the tax when it removed a similar tax from agricultural equipment, said Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, at a Press Club luncheon earlier this week. However, “this may not be the year,” he conceded, due to concerns about the economy and a number of expensive programs requested by Governor Butch Otter. “There is a lot of pressure being brought to bear on legislators, but ultimately we have to balance the budget,” said President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, at the same event.
(The legislators are actually in a tough spot – in an election year, they have to juggle removing the personal property tax on businesses, reducing the grocery tax on individuals, giving raises to state employees and teachers, and trying to maintain, let alone improve, state services. Which group can they least afford to piss off?)
The National Federation of Independent Businesses, a nationwide organization for small and independent businesses, has not yet posted its Idaho legislative positions for 2007, but like IACI, its focus in 2007 was on removing the personal property tax – and opposing a local options tax that could help pay for public transit.
The Idaho Chamber Alliance, a statewide organization of local Chambers, is apparently in favor only of roads. “The Idaho Chamber Alliance supports prudent transportation legislation that improves and maintains that states highways, waterways, railways and airports to ensure statewide economic development, marketability and business development continue to flourish.”
One might think this makes sense; why might a Chamber of Commerce in Pocatello or Coeur d’Alene, say, be interested in public transit that primarily serves Boise? But that is shortsighted, Beattie said. “If you gridlock transit in Davis County [north of Salt Lake City], you kill development in Moab,” he said — in other words, transportation problems in the capital city, such as truck traffic, end up affecting all corners of the state.
Not all the news is bad. A couple of business organizations are taking a stand to encourage support for public transit.
The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce has not yet posted its 2008 legislative agenda, but it sponsored a trip to Salt Lake City last year to examine its public transit system and a local options sales tax was on its 2007 legislative agenda.
Coalition for Regional Public Transportation, which recently took the catchier name Moving Idaho Forward, has a long list of business supporters, though it’s missing major companies with large lobbying organizations such as Idaho Power, Micron, and Qwest. Nonetheless, it may be the best bet for applying pressure to legislators.
Certainly there’s citizen support for public transit, at least in the Treasure Valley. A recent workshop on a downtown multimodal transit system in Boise, sponsored by COMPASS, the metropolitan planning organization for Ada and Canyon counties, drew many attendees. Asked to comment by posting sticky notes on the presentations, a number of the comments boiled down to either “This is great, but we want more!” or “I don’t care, just do *something*!”
So what is it that business representatives need to tell legislators to encourage them to allow local options tax legislation? They have to show a need, Beattie said, by pointing out factors such as environmental impacts, requirements by Federal transportation funding sources to provide public transit, declining air quality and the penalties involved in not attaining clean air levels, and the growth rates in the area. Public transit isn’t going to eliminate congestion, but it could eliminate the need to go out and build a new freeway. (Which might be another persuader for rural Idaho – if all the roads money doesn’t have to go to Interstate 84, maybe Highway 95 could get money for some turning lanes.)
“Public transit doesn’t pay for itself – but neither do highways,” Beattie said.