Coeur d’Alene Tribe signs fuel tax agreement

By John Miller
Boise, Idaho (AP) 10-07

Idaho and Coeur d’Alene tribal officials during October signed a pact requiring that gasoline sold on reservations be taxed at the same rate as elsewhere in the state and limiting use of the money to transportation-related needs.

The agreement, signed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and tribal Chairman Chief Allen, resolves a long dispute over who should get tax money from gasoline sold at reservation stores.

The Nez Perce tribe in north-central Idaho and the Shoshone-Bannock tribes near Pocatello are still negotiating with the state over separate but similar agreements. Lawyers for the Shoshone-Bannock tribes said an agreement was imminent.

Since 2001, Idaho has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs in its bid to collect the tax, including a previous law that was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2004, saying it violated tribal sovereignty.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a law based on a U.S. Supreme Court precedent in 2005, but delayed its effective date until Dec. 1 to give Otter and tribal lawyers time to reach a settlement.

“We did it ourselves, cooperatively, civilly and without getting the courts involved,” Otter said at a Boise ceremony to sign the pact. “It’s a testament to the quality of our relationship with the Coeur d’Alene tribe and to our shared willingness to work together, as sovereign governments, in the common interest of our people.”

Lawmakers who supported this year’s legislation believe the December deadline helped move negotiations along.

“Without a hard deadline, it would have been more difficult,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.

Gas sold at Coeur d’Alene tribal-run stations generates about $800,000 annually in taxes. That’s less than a half percent of the $212 million Idaho generated from its 25-cents-per-gallon fuel tax in 2006.

According to the agreement, the tribe can use its revenue to build and maintain roads, build parking lots along waterways, fund search-and-rescue, buy roadside land for preservation or enhancing scenic beauty, and pay for law enforcement as well as trusts meant to remediate gas-related water pollution, among other things.

“We followed the state’s own guidelines,” Allen told The Associated Press, on why his tribe was amenable to limiting uses for the tax revenue. “The money can be spent on infrastructure and also on things like law enforcement.”

Critical for Otter was gas-tax parity – that Idaho’s Indian tribes charge the same tax rate as the state.

During debate in the Legislature over the past decade, some off-reservation gas retailers complained they would be at a disadvantage if tribal stations had a lower tax rate.

Stations owned by the Nez Perce and Coeur d’Alene tribes now charge a 25-cent-per-gallon tax, but the Shoshone-Bannock tribes tax their gasoline at a lower amount. Still, William Bacon, the Shoshone-Bannock attorney, doesn’t expect demands of gas-tax parity will torpedo the talks between his tribe and the governor.

“I expect the state and the governor’s office and the Shoshone-Bannock tribes to finalize an agreement within the next several weeks,” Bacon told the AP. “It’s my understanding the basic document has been agreed to, in form. It’s just a matter of getting tribal leaders to sign the agreement, then get it off to the governor.”

Julie Kane, the attorney for the Nez Perce, described talks with Otter as “active” but declined to go into specifics on when an agreement might be signed.

“Hopefully, we’re moving forward,” she said.