Friday, April 8, 2005

House committee blinks on roads bill

Kempthorne lets Legislature go home after historic 86-day session

Express Staff Writer

District 25 Democrats, Sen. Clint Stennett, left, Rep. Donna Pence, center, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet finished their work in Boise on Wednesday, and are going on the road to hold town meetings in Blaine, Gooding, Camas, and Lincoln counties. They'll discuss the issues and bills that they dealt with this session, and what their plans are for future legislation. The local schedule of meetings is as follows: Tuesday, April 12, Blaine County Democrats' meeting, Ski and Heritage Museum, Ketchum 5 p.m.; Wednesday, April 13, Fairfield Senior Center, 9 a.m.; Thursday, April 14, Hailey Rotary at the Community Campus in Hailey, Noon-1 p.m.; Thursday, April 14, Ketchum Chamber & Visitor's Bureau, at Best Western Kentwood, 8-10 a.m.; Tuesday, April 26, Ketchum Rotary at Rico's Pizza & Pasta, Ketchum, Noon. Photo by Willy Cook

The 2005 session of the Idaho Legislature ended Wednesday on its 86th day after dealing with some historical issues, making it the fifth longest session in state history. Among those issues, the final one to be resolved in order to close the session was the passage of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's "Connecting Idaho" initiative to provide funding for future state highways.

The bill, known as the GARVEE funding bill, finally passed the House 47 to 23 on Wednesday, April 6. It included an amended plan for the state to sell bonds to pay for $1.6 billion in future highway construction from one end of the state to the other.

An earlier version was road-blocked March 30 by the House Transportation and Defense Committee, prompting Kempthorne to veto eight bills in retaliation.

The new House measure limits the state's annual spending to 20 percent of all federal gas tax dollars being funneled to the 13 proposed road projects, and to 30 percent after the fifth year. Thereafter, it will require a vote of the Legislature to increase the percentage. As well, it gives more authority to the Idaho Transportation Department to identify projects for eligibility.

Earlier in the session, the Legislature also passed an historical agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe in which the tribe agrees to waive in-stream flow claims for the rights to a major portion of the Clearwater River in exchange for money and lands. The agreement was jointly made with the State of Idaho, and the Federal Government.

Both the highway expansion bill and the Nez Perce Water Rights Bill were co-sponsored by Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum. Another measure that passed when the GARVEE went through on Wednesday was initiated a year ago to try to avoid a lengthy court battle over water rights in the Snake River Plain Aquifer.

"Consequently, we passed a framework of bills to give junior ground water pumpers an opportunity to provide mitigation to senior surface right holders," Stennett said.

Stennett said he also has been working hard this session with energy companies and conservation groups to work out a bill to "create state oversight in the new and expanding energy facilities throughout the state. Idaho is one of a few states without a statewide process for dealing with proposed energy facility development."

The bill didn't make it to the Senate floor, but Stennett said he will continue to fight to preserve clean air.

"I will not sacrifice our environment so that Idaho can provide electricity for west coast hot tubs."

He also co-sponsored a bill to require building contractors to be registered with the state. The bill passed.

The Legislature also passed several income tax and property tax incentives to attract and maintain business in the state.

To help fund water solutions this year, the tax on a pack of cigarettes will remain 57 cents. The money may also pay for the renovation of the Idaho Statehouse, if the Legislature ever approves the project.

On the negative side, landline phone bills could go up over the next few years thanks to a move by the Legislature deregulating the Colorado phone company Qwest and other phone companies. The state will have some say for up to five years, but the prices could still climb up to 10 percent each year.

Also, college tuition for in-state students has been implemented for the first time. Students at Boise State University, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College previously paid fees directed at particular issues. Officials say this move is to pay for instruction and will ultimately attract professors. However, they have not said what will be cut now that the money is directed elsewhere.

The Associated Press contributes to this article.

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