Friday, April 8, 2005

Governor's bite as bad as his bark

The 2005 session of the Idaho Legislature was probably one of the few last chances for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to show backbone with errant lawmakers before his two-term reign ends next year.

So, not known for butting heads, the governor surprisingly drew a line in the sand and challenged legislators who had stalled his pet "Connecting Idaho" legislation to build and improve 258 miles of roads with revenue bonds.

With his jaw squared and with photo-op flair for the cameras, he gave lawmakers an unaccustomed 11th hour jolt: He bought himself a brick-sized "VETOED" rubber stamp with red ink and promptly pounded it down with crushing vigor on eight bills, to the surprise and chagrin of legislators.

Adding to this extraordinary display of grit, Kempthorne growled testily that "the fight for (Connecting Idaho) is not over," adding in a written statement that "more vetoes are imminent" if his highways bill continued to be held up in the session's twilight hours.

Political backbone works every time.

In the end, after a few tweaks in the legislation's language, the bill emerged for the governor's signature, lawmakers having been properly brought back into line by the unexpected inflexibility of the governor.

Kempthorne's welcome, if uncharacteristic, steeliness in dealing with the Legislature paid dividends for the state: the unique bonding mechanism—GARVEE, for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles—will allow Idaho to accelerate a sweeping highway program with bonds paid off by annual federal highway allocations to the state. So, 30 years of construction costing more than $1 billion may be telescoped into 10 years.

Rightly so, lawmakers expressed caution about the unprecedented and unfamiliar bonding method versus traditional pay-as-you-go financing. And correctly, they warned that lawmakers must keep an eye on how much and how fast the state commits itself to projects ahead of checks from Washington to avoid incurring debt it can't meet.

With those conditions in place, the state can forge ahead, improving a state road system that has been badly overburdened by growth and, in many places, left to deteriorate for lack of funds.

A final thought about the governor's dare to lawmakers: Kempthorne and his successors need to beware of the disappointing impulse to go-along-to-get-along with Idaho's overbearing and often self-indulgent Republican majority.

Times arise when the public interest and the public trust, rather than political party loyalty, are paramount. Handing out vetoes and using other bare-knuckled tricks of the chief executive can chasten arrogant lawmakers and special interests that have been led to believe by a governor's timid and tacit acceptance that they rule the roost.

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