Kalispell’s Garner Sponsors Gas-Tax Increase as Infrastructure Fix

More than 50 supporters testify that eight-cent increase would promote road safety and improvements

By Tristan Scott
Rep. Frank Garner listens to discussion during a Montana Legislative Session in Helena. Beacon File Photo

A Kalispell lawmaker on Wednesday introduced a bill that would raise the state’s gas tax by 8 cents per gallon in order to fund road-and-infrastructure projects he says are critical to motorists’ safety.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, the city’s former police chief, gained broad support from more than 50 proponents as House Bill 473 was heard during a lengthy committee hearing Feb. 22. Supporters included multiple mayors, city managers, county representatives, and industry officials, who said their communities’ laundry list of road-and-bridge priorities will continue to be mired in a deep backlog of maintenance and improvement projects unless the funding measure is passed.

Garner’s bill, proponents said, would help bridge the funding gap and place the onus on out-of-state visitors who utilize the state’s roadways.

The measure was also touted by representatives of the state’s construction and engineering industries, as well as the Montana Highway Patrol, and earned an endorsement by the Democratic governor’s office, whose budget director, Dan Villa, hailed it as a “long-term fix” to Montana’s infrastructure-funding stalemate.

Garner, serving in his second term as a Flathead representative, said he sponsored the bill knowing that it would generate controversy within his party, but promised that raising the fuel tax for the first time in 24 years would fund critical infrastructure projects, such as improvements to Montana’s roads and bridges, many of which are in disrepair.

“This is the right thing to do,” Garner said, acknowledging that raising taxes of any sort is not a popular Republican platform. “It would have been much easier for me to remain a spectator rather than be the messenger. But I would rather go home knowing that we did something to solve one of the state’s great problems and risk criticism than go home and say we did nothing.”

Garner introduced the bill before the state’s House Transportation Committee, chaired by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, who works as a highway patrolman. The committee did not take immediate action on the measure. It must now move forward out of committee for a full vote on the House floor.

Garner said that approximately 40 percent of the tax would be shouldered by out-of-state visitors who rely on the state’s roads and bridges during their trips to Montana, and whose additional funding of state roads and highways will “help improve the state’s most pressing safety needs.”

“We are going to ask less of Montanans,” he said. “If we implement this policy up to 40 percent of this is going to be provided by out-of-state visitors.”

Prior to the 2017 Legislature, the state’s Department of Transportation and Montana Highway Patrol faced budget cuts that would have stalled more than 30 highway construction projects and forced the layoffs of 27 troopers, forcing lawmakers into a public-safety-funding fix when they arrived in Helena in January.

Darryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, supported Garner’s bill, saying it would preserve those jobs while reaping benefits from the state’s growing tourism industry.

“A fuel tax is one of the most direct ‘user fees’ we have at our disposal. We haven’t adjusted that fee since the early 90s in Montana, and we simply cannot keep up with routine maintenance as the value of our revenue declines relative to inflation,” he said.

In addition to raising the tax 8 cents on regular gas and 7.5 cents on diesel, Garner’s bill calls for an audit of the transportation department, publishing a website to monitor how funds are spent and creating a separate pot of money — in addition to continuing existing payments to cities and counties — accessible for local governments to pay for road projects if they put up matching funds.

Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, said the increase wasn’t needed because the subcommittee that sets the transportation department’s budget cut from other parts of the agency’s budget and was able to fill the hole.

But Villa, the Bullock’s budget director, said much of the subcommittee’s work would be unwound as the general budget bill now works its way through both the House and Senate.

Rep. Ray Shaw, R-Sheridan, also rejected Glimm’s account of the subcommittee’s proposed fix, saying its actions are not a long-term fix and leaves counties without infrastructure funding.