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Monday, November 24, 2008

Cold Day in Hell May Affect SD Highway Funding

By Gordon Garnos

AT ISSUE: For months now South Dakotans have been hearing about the shortage of funds in the state's highway fund program. This, with the reduction of fuel being used on our highways, has also caused a cut in the amount of gasoline tax the state gets from motorists. This, of course, adds to the problem of how South Dakota is going to be able to not only maintain its highways and bridges, but to repair and/or replace our highways and bridges.

The lack of funding also poses several interesting questions.

A FORMER West River long time legislator was guaranteed re-elections when he profoundly uttered his often used expression, "It will be a cold day in hell before I'll ever vote for a raise in taxes."

This and similar expressions have almost always been favorites to South Dakota voters. We have been generally recognized nationally for our conservative views, particularly when it comes to raising taxes. However, considering the shortfall on highway funding, South Dakota now finds both voters as well as our legislators may have to rethink "cold day in hell".

A special legislative committee has been meeting off and on for the past several weeks trying to assemble the pieces of the puzzle that will help solve highway funding. Ideas generated from these meetings have run the gamut from the proposal to have yet another study committee, to increasing South Dakota's 22-cent gas tax by several percentage points.

HERE ARE SOME pieces of the puzzle that make an interesting picture. First of all, one piece of the picture puzzle is the fact that $72.3 million will be needed to maintain our roads as they are. Another $17 million is needed for bridge preservation. Yet another $25 million is the cost of the wish list by the Department of Transportation which needs to be done, but which are not scheduled due to the lack of funding.

As I mentioned, the possible solutions are extremely varied. For example, the legislature would have to raise its current 22-cent tax on gasoline and 20 cents per gallon on ethanol by 13 cents a gallon to come close to raising the $72.3 million needed for highway preservation. This appears to be excessive, but if a portion of this proposal would be combined with other tax and fee raises, the $72.3 million may be able to be reached.

ANOTHER SUGGESTION to raise that $72.3 million would be to add the four percent sales tax to the purchase of fuel. It would appear that these two options are the best solutions because using motor fuels would make everyone on the highway share the load. I might add that when I say everyone, this includes those thousands of people, maybe millions, who use South Dakota as a drive-through state.

At the same time, raising license plate fees a few dollars should not cripple any of us too severely. Another option that has been discussed would be to remove the fees on license plates for older vehicles. However, the older cars are generally owned by those who cannot afford newer cars.

This would put a major stumbling block on this proposal.

THERE YOU HAVE IT, a picture puzzle that may not have the l,000 piece puzzle that we used to put together as kids. But assembling the few pieces we do have makes the job as difficult.

How the legislature will resolve the highway funding problem will be dealt with in just a few short weeks. Other options would be to do nothing at all or throw it to another study committee which are both bad ideas.

Consequently, if anything is going to be done, our legislature will have to realize there may be a "cold day in hell" as well as in Pierre awaiting them....

Gordon Garnos was long-time editor of the Watertown Public Opinion and recently retired after 39 years with that newspaper. Garnos, a lifelong resident of South Dakota except for his military service in the U.S. Air Force, was born and raised in Presho.


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