Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Lawmakers reflect on State of the State

Express Staff Writer

State Highway 75 could be one of the beneficiaries of a new, sweeping proposal introduced by Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in his combined State of the State and Budget address Monday night.

His "Connecting Idaho" proposal is a transportation infrastructure improvement plan that "includes long-awaited and much anticipated safety and highway improvements to each and every region of this state," Kempthorne said.

"Over the course of the next ten years, we're going to build three decades' worth of highways," Kempthorne said. "I'm proposing we invest $1.6 billion, and we do it now. It's time we stop talking and start building."

The inclusion of state Highway 75 in the governor's proposal is something that pleased District 25 lawmakers.

"We're pretty excited about it," said Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

But House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, cautioned that there are additional costs associated with road building.

"You build all these roads, and then you have to maintain them," she said. "That's the other side of it."

Freshman Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said she was pleased to note that Kempthorne is proposing a new bridge across the Snake River, downstream from Twin Falls' Perine Bridge. The new bridge would bypass Twin Falls and benefit many farmers who regularly drive south into Nevada.

For the local lawmakers, Kempthorne's combined State of the State and budget address was a mixed bag of vision on some issues and a lack of foresight on others. They were pleased with his "Connecting Idaho" initiative. They were pleased with his rural economic development proposals. They liked his ideas for a criminal justice commission.

But they frowned on his positions regarding two of the session's biggest issues: money and water.

Kempthorne said his $2.2 million budget is "a conservative spending plan" that reflects his commitment that the temporary 1 percent sales tax increase adopted in 2003 will sunset this summer as planned.

Jaquet said Kempthorne couched his budget talks by stating the financial blueprint contains a structural deficit.

"What that means is that we don't have enough," she said. "For this year, we're using $117 million in carryover. Following here, we have a crash, essentially. The sales tax is going to expire, as planned, on June 30. The thee of us (Jaquet, Stennett and Pence) were disappointed that he didn't take more of a leadership role and look down the road."

Stennett said that next winter's legislative session could be very difficult.

"It'll be like 2003 when we stayed until May 8," he said.

Pence said that of the $35 million in additional money the governor is putting toward education, $17 million is already committed to expenditures.

"That doesn't leave a lot of money for the schools to work with," she said. "Those funds aren't going to go very far."

Stennett stressed the need for leadership on water issues and added that Kemthorne did not deliver.

"The governor didn't, in my view, provide a clear path to get there. He said, 'I think we should all keep working together,' but I think he should have provided some leadership," Stennett said. "If we don't settle the water deal, we better not be borrowing any money for roads."

Another of Kempthorne's major initiatives was "a progressive tax incentive package...that will grab the attention of Fortune 500 companies around the country."

"Idaho is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, but in a time of corporate mergers and consolidations, we can never take that for granted," the governor said. "This is an investment that will pay for itself with new, high-paying jobs and increased tax revenue to the state."

But Jaquet flipped the coin and asked if you don't have a good education system, including higher education, "how are you going to train people to have these jobs for these fortune 500 businesses? Why are people going to want to come here?"

Stennett pointed out that small entrepreneurs and businesses create most of the jobs in Idaho. Kempthorne's tax package won't do much for those people, he said.

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