(EDITOR'S NOTE: We asked Sandra Mitchell to write about a potentially devastating issue facing snowmobilers who not only live in Idaho but also ride in Idaho. If you're willing to help the snowmobile community rectify this problem, contact Mitchell. Her contact information is at the end of her story.)
When Idaho's legislators finally brokered a deal with Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter on how to fund needed work on our state's deteriorating highways, they did so with some deft sleight of hand, moving the money from one place to another in a classic shell game.
The losers were Idaho's recreationists and all the communities that have enjoyed the benefits of motorized recreation in the past 40 some years. This game avoided an increase in the gas tax, but took away the money that funds recreation projects and programs from one end of the state to the other. It was a bad deal that needs to be corrected and sooner rather than later.
Idaho's off-highway vehicle (OHV) users, including snowmobilers and boaters, don't use the highways for their recreation. They do use lots of fuel and in doing so pay highway taxes. While farmers and loggers get their tax money back for off-road activities, OHV users agreed to forego their refunds if the state would direct that money to things such as trails, groomers and boat ramps.
In 1972, the Idaho Legislature passed a law dedicating 2 percent of the gas tax to recreation and in 1983 increased the figure to 3 percent. This amounts to $4.8 million annually, all of it dedicated to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation for waterway improvements, off-road trails, park roads and bridges and search and rescue. This amount of money is not much in terms of solving Idaho's highway problems, but is huge for recreation and for all the rural communities that benefit from motorized recreation.
And benefit they do. For example, a recently completed economic impact study by the University of Idaho found that motorized recreation provides 4 percent of the total jobs in Valley County. In addition, $2.6 million in personal income and $7.4 million in unmargined sales (lodging and restaurants) are directly or indirectly created by snowmobiling. In Island Park the 500 miles of internationally known snowmobile trails, the five trail groomers and drags valued at $1 million and the $75,000 grooming shed were a direct result of the recreation gas tax. Throw in the economic benefits from boating and summer OHV users and one can easily see how essential these gas tax funded recreation programs are to the economies of rural communities from Priest Lake to Island Park. These communities, like hundreds of others, have made the transition from resource extraction dependence to recreation dependent economies.
If recreation is not funded, where do they go next?
Interestingly enough at a time when we are doing everything possible to protect what is left of our economy, the governor and legislators come up with a deal that strips away a fair and equitable program that has been in existence for more than 40 years, a program that improves Idahoans' quality of life and benefits the economy without the use of any general tax funds.
The only good news in this sad story is that the legislature chose not to implement this plan until July of 2010. They appointed a Legislative Task Force made up of four senators and four representatives to identify "alternative dedicated funding" for IDPR to replace the gas tax. If they fail to name another dedicated source then IDPR would be funded out of the general fund, competing with schools, prisons, Medicaid and others for the few precious state dollars. After two meetings, to no one's surprise, the task force has not identified a single workable alternative.
The Idaho Recreation Council, a coalition of snowmobile, ATV, dirt motorcycle, 4X4, equestrians, mountain bike, jet boat and backcountry pilots, has undertaken a statewide campaign entitled, "We Want Our Gas Tax Back" to convince the 2010 legislature to fix the mess created when political wills collided.
Through the hard work of many recreationists in Idaho, we earned a small victory when the Legislative Task Force dealing with finding alternative funding passed a motion to delay a decision until July 1, 2011. Then Senator Cameron proposed that the task force send a letter with their recommendation that states the intent of the committee is to restore OHV gas tax monies to IDPR. So while we've earned this victory, we must stay vigilant and ensure that they follow through on their promises. Stay tuned.
(Mitchell is on the steering committee representing snowmobiling for the Idaho Recreation Council. You can reach her at: P.O. Box 70001, Boise, ID 83707, firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-424-3870 or 888-342-6976.)