Missoula County hopeful for statewide fuel tax increase

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss and Gov. Steve Bullock tour one of the county’s infrastructure needs near Frenchtown. The county remains hopeful that the Legislature will approve an increase in fuel tax to help fund basic road projects. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Missoula County commissioners remain hopeful that a proposed increase to the state gas tax will pass the Legislature this session, helping soften funding cuts at the federal level.

But several Republican lawmakers representing Missoula question why the Legislature should increase taxes on fuel when Missoula County has not taken advantage of its authority to enact a 2-cent increase on fuel.

The Montana House this week took the first step in increasing the state’s fuel tax for the first time in more than two decades, and while it would only generate $500,000 for Missoula County if fully approved, that would go far in general road maintenance.

“All local governments across the state, including county government, is finding itself in a real fiscal bind as it relates to infrastructure and road maintenance,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “That can be seen as close to home as any number of roadways in Missoula County that are suffering from spring runoff and are in desperate need of repair. This funding is absolutely critical.”

The bill, which passed the House on a preliminary vote Thursday, would increase the state fuel tax by 8 cents a gallon, and 7.25 cents per gallon on diesel fuel starting this July.

According to the sponsor, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, the bill would generate roughly $60 million a year, with around $22 million of that going to cities and counties.

Missoula County fully supports the measure and has asked its legislative delegation to do the same.

“With federal cuts, the anticipated $500,000 revenue Missoula County would receive from the gas tax increase would allow our Public Works department to continue providing critical services,” said Vicki Zeier, the county’s CAO. “In order to fund basic services, Missoula County is being forced to shift the burden to our constituents by raising taxes to meet these demands.”

Reps. Adam Hertz and Brad Tschida, both Republicans representing Missoula, voted against the measure this week. Tschida said Missoula County has the option of raising the gas tax 2 cents a gallon on its own but has declined to do so.

“Why should the state do the work of the county commissioners of Missoula?” Tschida asked in a letter to the county. “If it’s not important to the Missoula County commissioners, why should it be to the state?”

Strohmaier said a 2-cent increase would be an option if the Legislature fails to pass the gas tax increase. He believes doing so on a statewide level is a better approach than counties doing it on their own.

“If this statewide gas tax goes down in flames, all options are the table,” Strohmaier said. “The broader scope approach to transportation funding is beneficial to the entire state as opposed to a more piecemeal approach.”

Strohmaier said recent and proposed cuts at the federal level have left Missoula County in a bind. Congress failed to reauthorize Secure Rural Schools funding in 2016, resulting in a loss to the county of more than $500,000.

To compensate for that, Missoula County raised taxes and may consider doing so again this next fiscal year if additional revenue is not found. Proposed cuts to Payment in Lieu of Taxes could also cost the county more than $400,000.

“We’re dealing with a gas tax that hasn’t been increased in decades, and in the face of funding decreases from federal government, something needs to happen,” said Strohmaier. “We’re already finding ourselves in a hole that we’re trying to dig out from. The potential revenue from this proposed gas-tax increase will certainly help.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com