Highways shortfall unresolved

CARSON CITY — Two key lobbyists said Monday there is no chance the 2007 Legislature will approve either of the two most discussed proposals to raise money to handle the state’s $3.8 billion highway construction shortfall.

With the June 4 adjournment deadline looming, the Legislature worked into the night on Memorial Day, but neither of the road funding proposals was introduced as a bill.

That left Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, who was appointed to transportation task forces by Gov. Jim Gibbons and his predecessor, predicting that the Legislature will adjourn without solving the highway funding shortfall.

“That’s what I see, too,” added Paul Enos, executive director of the Nevada Motor Transportation Association, who also has served on the current and former governors’ transportation committees.

“Everybody is going to blame everybody else,” Vilardo said.

Gibbons has infuriated some legislators with his unyielding opposition to all tax increases, including those proposed to build roads. Democrats, in turn, have objected to Gibbons’ road funding plan because it would siphon off general fund revenue that they say is needed to fund public education.

Vilardo predicted Gibbons will blame Democrats for not acting on his no-new taxes highway plan, while legislators will say Gibbons exacerbated traffic congestion by blocking even minimal tax increases on the industries that cause highway deterioration.

“There is going to be a blame game,” Vilardo said. “It is too bad there won’t be any action because the cost of road construction will go up exponentially. We will come in the next session with even a bigger problem.”

The cost of highway construction materials has been growing by 13 percent per year, officials have said. The shortfall in highway construction was placed at $3.8 billion by the state in 2005, but Transportation Director Susan Martinovich said recently that the actual shortfall is $5 billion.

Gibbons’ plan includes selling $2.5 billion in bonds to start work on the most needed highway construction, but with a week to go before adjournment, his plan has not been introduced in the Assembly.

Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas, announced last week he would introduce Gibbons’ proposal, but Mabey said Monday he has been unable to carry out that commitment because Gibbons’ staff had not yet finished reviewing a bill draft designed to carry out the governor’s plan.

Under Gibbons’ plan, the state highway fund would receive $424 million over the next eight years from room taxes now going to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and would also reap $148 million in vehicle sales tax revenue and $212 million in live entertainment taxes that would otherwise be fed into the state general fund.

Gibbons demanded over the weekend that Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, at least conduct a hearing on his highway funding plan.

Buckley said Monday Gibbons’ proposal will receive a hearing, but that someone first must introduce an enabling bill in the Assembly.

“It is a shame the governor waited so long to come up with a plan,” Buckley said.

But, she added, “even if it is introduced at the very end, we still will hear it.”

Assembly Transportation Chairman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, said Monday afternoon that he expected the Legislature would turn its full attention to the transportation funding issue after it reaches an agreement on the budget.

A transportation funding bill put together by Sen. Joe Lee, D-North Las Vegas, and Senate Transportation Chairman Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, had not been introduced as of Monday night.

Their plan would raise about $2 billion for transportation funding by increasing car registration fees, raising the diesel fuel tax by 4 cents a gallon over the next two years, taking $20 million a year in room taxes. It also relies on taxicab trip fee increases and a reallocation of car rental taxes.

Lee said he and Nolan were trying to arrange a meeting with Gibbons to try to convince him that their plan does not go against the governor’s often-repeated pledge to veto any legislation involving new or increased taxes.

Such a meeting would appear to be a waste of time, however. Brent Boynton, Gibbons’ communication director, said Friday that any diesel tax and car registration fees increases would trigger a veto. Boynton said the governor opposes all tax increases and only will support fee increases approved by the affected industry.

The trucking industry opposes the 4-cent diesel tax increase that Lee and Nolan are proposing, Enos said.

“Either you are at the table or you are on the menu,” Enos said. “Right now we are on the menu, and I am not going to negotiate my own hanging.”

Enos has said he was open to paying 3 cents more per gallon for diesel fuel, but that was at a time when the gaming industry and others also were stepping up to the plate and proposing taxes on themselves to pay for roads, he said.

“The trucking industry drives 8 percent of the miles and pays 37 percent of the taxes and user fees,” Enos said. “We are paying our fair share and now they want us to pay more.”

Lee said Monday he is not giving up on his and Nolan’s proposal, and he believes Gibbons may yet see a way to back a workable solution to the transportation funding shortfall.

“I hope in time he will be called the ‘transportation governor,’ (that) he will see it as a pragmatic opportunity to handle our transportation needs,” Lee said. “Nobody wants to raise taxes, but nobody wants bad roads either. Someone has to pay.”

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