Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Coal plants, property taxes top Reps' legislative list


By STEVE BENSON
Express Staff Writer

From coal-fired power plants and water shortages to property taxes and Republican Party dominance, Sen. Clint Stennett and Reps. Wendy Jaquet and Donna Pence will have full plates when the Idaho Legislature reconvenes next month.

Stennett, D-Ketchum, minority leader of the Idaho Senate, and Jaquet, D-Ketchum, minority leader of the House, will both attend tonight's public information meetings regarding Sempra Energy's proposal to erect a coal-fired power plant nine miles northeast of Jerome. Pence, D-Gooding, is on vacation until mid-December.

The three Democrats represent Idaho's 25th District, which includes Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties. The second Regular Session of the 58th Idaho Legislature will convene Jan. 9 at noon.

Sempra's plant, which is one of four coal-fired power plants proposed for Idaho, is among the most pressing issues facing the district. the legislators said. Neither Stennett nor Jaquet feel the plants belong in the state.

"I haven't met anyone in favor of these plants yet," Jaquet said.

Stennett said he's repeatedly confronted with concerns about the plants potential impact on the environment, including air quality, mercury emissions and water depletion.

"A very basic question I continue to ask is whether using Idaho's air and water to produce power is a wise use of our resources," Stennett said. The power would most likely be sold in California.

"I think the health issues are very important," Jaquet said, adding that the business aspects could be just as dirty.

"(Power companies) are just picking off Idaho because we don't have very good regulations," she said.

Sempra's proposed plant outside Jerome is classified as a merchant plant, meaning it's not regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, and can therefore skirt around certain standards.

Both legislators would like to see a regional siting bill specific to merchant plants passed this session to stiffen plant siting regulations and deter Sempra's proposal. Jaquet added that she will work on a kilowatt tax bill, with the revenue benefiting public schools.

"That could discourage Sempra and make (the plant) financially less attractive," she said. And if it doesn't, it could provide some much-needed help to financially struggling school districts, she added.

Another major, ongoing issue facing the district and the state is property taxes.

"This will take front and center stage," Stennett said. "My goal is to provide significant and real relief to homeowners who have had the tax burden shifted to them and away from businesses over the past 20 years."

Over the past several months, Jaquet has served on the Property Tax Interim Committee, which proposed more than $120 million in property tax relief to be considered by the 2006 Idaho Legislature.

The committee's recommendations would boost the homeowners' property tax exemption to $75,000 from $50,000. Land would also be included in the exemption, and indexed for inflation. According to the Associated Press, the bill would also increase a special exemption for the low-income aged and disabled, at a cost to the state of $5 million. Furthermore, it would close a tax loophole for developers, simplify impact-fee laws and allow them to be charged for schools, set up a tax-deferral program for some seniors and shift millions in school funding off the property tax to the state general fund.

"We want to make growth pay for itself," Jaquet said.

Stennett thinks the bill could go even further.

"To ameliorate the issue, (the exemption) should be at $100,000," he said, adding that much of the private land in the district is significantly more expensive than the house that occupies it, meaning the taxes are out of whack and too burdensome for many homeowners.

The allocation and use of water, more sufficient funding for public education, campaign spending and allocation of funds, the state's skyrocketing prison population, Medicaid and more affordable health care and insurance were all mentioned as issues the representatives will address in the coming session.

"We're pretty busy, but this will be a short session," Jaquet said, noting that legislative sessions are typically short during an election year. "The March 17 deadline gets the Republicans nervous."

She added that Democrats typically fare better in Idaho during midterm and off-year elections.

"We always pick up more seats," Jaquet said, adding that 2006 could be even better than usual given the current issues facing the Republican Party on a national level.

Perhaps the most anticipated race in the 2006 election will be for governor. Republican Congressman C.L. Butch Otter and Democrat Jerry Brady will vie to replace Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

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Get the scoop on coal-fired power plants

Two informational meetings examining coal-fired power plants—including one proposed near Jerome—will be held tonight in Sun Valley and Hailey. They will be attended by Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum.

The first meeting is at 5 p.m. in the Sun Valley Inn's Limelight Room, in Sun Valley Village. The next will start at 7:30 p.m. in the Rotary Room of the Community Campus in Hailey, next to Wood River High School. Both will include presentations from experts.




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