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Transit supporters unveil local option tax bill

With momentum apparently turning in its favor, the Coalition for Regional Public Transportation is preparing to push its message with the help of a new and improved local option tax bill.

The coalition voted Tuesday to approve a final draft of a new bill that, if passed, would give regional transit authorities the ability to ask voters to approve a sales tax increase to fund road and transit projects.

Now, all they need is a sponsor.

Ray Stark, vice president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and a member of the coalition, said the group is in the process of approaching legislators who might be friendly to the idea of sponsoring the much-anticipated bill.

Similar legislation failed to make it out of committee hearings last year, but this time around, supporters think they've found the key that will earn the bill wider support—including funding for roads.

This reincarnated bill includes language that would allow money to be spent on road projects, and thereby is tailored to the needs of different communities.

"The legislation has been adjusted to reflect a broader vision," Stark said

This change has garnered interest from lawmakers who were previously cool to the idea, but controversy still dogs the bill.

At a recent legislative forum, Republican Party leaders voiced their concern that a local option tax would require a state constitutional amendment. Supporters of the tax say the concerns are nothing more than a political decoy.

"The coalition believes this is a smokescreen and a delay tactic on the part of House Republican leadership," Stark said.

"Several Supreme Court decisions have confirmed the legislative ability to grant local option authority," he said, pointing to the hotel room tax, the resort city tax and vehicle registration fees collected by the Ada County Highway District.

"It seems that they want to put in the Idaho constitution various requirements and obstacles for local option that normally would be approved in regular legislation," Stark said. "It may be their hope to make local option impossible to be approved in the state of Idaho."

While he doesn't like the move, Stark said he doesn't believe a motion for an amendment would go very far. "There are indications that if the House approved a Constitutional amendment for local option, it could be dead on arrival in the Senate because it is unnecessary."

The other marked change in the bill is a new form of governance for funds and projects related to a local option tax. As written, communities would be able to create regional transportation authorities to oversee all aspects of the tax. In the Treasure Valley, this would mean the merging of Compass, the community planning association, and Valley Regional Transit.

While the future of the legislation is unsure, Stark said he feels confident that it will pick up supporters.

Of course, transit supporters may face another hurdle in the form of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

Otter has come out in support of a local option sales tax, but one to fund just roads and bridges and that would be administered by the counties.

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