Friday, March 30, 2007

Highway funding bill stalls in Legislature

Veto of bowling alley smoking ban overridden

Express Staff Writer

It was unclear late Thursday afternoon whether the Idaho Legislature would wrap up at day's end or not.

In what many lawmakers predicted would be the final day of the 2007 session, the Senate voted 23-12 against a $246 million highway funding bill, and Senate leaders were meeting with Gov. Butch Otter to try to devise an end to the stalemate. The plan to borrow money to improve Interstate 84 and other specific roads around the state was the last big question standing before the end of the session.

Senate leaders wanted to fund the road improvements but not to specify which roads to improve, said Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum.

"My position is that I have to stay here as long as need be to make sure the Legislature doesn't get in the business of picking projects," Stennett said. "We have to make sure this is done by the Idaho Department of Transportation board and the professionals. The Senate gets that, and the House, unfortunately, doesn't."

Indeed, the final days of the 2007 session weren't without drama.

For only the third time since 1919 the Legislature on Wednesday overturned a Republican governor's veto, when a majority of lawmakers voted again to ban smoking in bowling alleys, despite Otter's veto of the bill and his claim that it infringed on personal property rights.

The Senate voted 29-6 to override the smoking ban veto after a 57-13 House vote earlier in the day. A two-thirds majority is needed to override a governor's veto.

"I was in complete agreement," Stennett said. "I think that's a public health issue. I'm not sure that the governor looked at that as closely as he should and the popularity of it and the need for it. I wouldn't have hung my hat on something that has that much support."

As well, the House voted to overturn a second veto on a bill to increase the grocery tax credit, but the Senate declined to hold a vote, which may have killed any chance of offering grocery tax relief this year and maybe for the foreseeable future.

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, corralled her caucus to near unanimous opposition to the veto override.

"Frankly, I'd like to see us take the sales tax off of groceries 100 percent and be able to see the savings at the cash register," she said.

Jaquet said she viewed Otter's veto of the smoking ban in bowling alleys as personal politics, while the grocery tax credit veto was more grounded in a policy position.

Some have alleged that lawmakers clashed with Otter throughout the session. Otter kicked the discord off by stopping work on the Statehouse expansion and forcing a compromise plan some lawmakers continue to criticize.

But lawmakers would soon begin rejecting many of Otter's key initiatives: his grocery tax break targeted toward low-income families, his plan to make it easier to vote for new community colleges and his desire to eliminate two state departments.

Otter's press secretary, Mark Warbis, however, said no such underlying disagreement exists between the governor and the Legislature.

"That's the way the process works," he said regarding the override of the smoking ban veto. "He understands and respects the separation of powers. They stated their opinion. He stated his position. And the system works."

Warbis stressed that it was a sign that they disagreed on a specific piece of legislation, not in general.

"No one should read any more into it than that," he said. "He maintains a strong, positive relationship with the Legislature and looks forward to working constructively with them now and into the future."

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