By Kevin Burbach
PIERRE (AP) - Members of a legislative committee tasked with studying how to best fund state and local highways started gathering ideas Wednesday, including considering increasing some user fees as an option to help fund South Dakota's roads.
The Highway Needs and Financing Committee met Tuesday and Wednesday at the state Capitol. Republican Sen. Mike Vehle, chairman of the committee, said the state could look at a 10 percent increase to the license fee for drivers. He suggested such potential legislation as lowering the gas tax from 22 cents per gallon to 20 cents while adding a 3 percent excise tax on fuel over two years.
"I'm willing to look at a lot of other things, but we've got to get started somewhere," he said.
The state's gas tax has been at 22 cents per gallon since 1999.
Vehle also said the secretary of transportation should bring annual reports to the Legislature on how well the state is meeting its target road conditions and how much it would cost to reach their goals.
Other legislators commented on Vehle's suggestions but didn't offer any ideas of their own for possible legislation.
The committee heard testimony from concerned parties Tuesday and Wednesday that ranged from Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch to the president of the state's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, David Owen. They wanted to make sure the committee makes legislation recommendations that address fixing state roads but don't unfairly burden industries.
Lentsch and others said many local "farm-to-market" roads are in disrepair and in desperate need of attention, especially as agricultural production continues to increase.
"Our technology continues to advance, so our infrastructure needs to advance," Lentsch said.
Owen said companies such as ethanol processing plants also rely on back country roads and need to see them better funded. He said having some type of user fees would probably be the best approach.
The committee will meet again for two days in early November, and members will finalize their legislative recommendations for new laws at that time.
"There's a lot of things we do in government where we can argue whether that's the government's position or not - but roads are (the responsibility of government)," Vehle said. "So we do have to look at ways to solve this problem."