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For the week of January 10 through January 16, 2001

Do legislators share Kempthorne’s vision?


Idaho legislators reserved their most robust applause during Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s State of the State speech Monday when he tossed them a piece of political red meat. He vowed to wage war in the courts against the feds over planned introduction of grizzlies into the state and any tinkering by Washington with Idaho’s dominion over natural resources.

But that wasn’t the least important passage of his speech.

His most eloquent proposals for legislative approval, and with far more enduring importance to Idaho than lawsuits against Washington, involved education and criminal justice.

His proposal for funds to reward secondary education teachers; to work with industry on attracting and retaining exceptional college faculty, targeting improved reading and math skills for the state’s children, and recognizing the need for rehabilitation, rather than punishment, in criminal justice will go a long way in achieving several ends.

First, it will lift Idaho’s schools out of the ranks of the cellar dwellers and create an important, 21st century national reputation for the state.

Second, excellence in education is an automatic magnet for new industry and research laboratories in need of well-educated workers.

And, third, therein may be part of the solution to Idaho’s most crushing budget and social problem -- the nation’s fastest growing prison inmate population.

Kempthorne wisely said he wouldn’t ask for funds for a new men’s prison. Instead, he wants funds to attack one of the root causes of more inmates -- drug abuse.

An estimated 87 percent of the state’s prison population is involved in substance abuse, he said. By launching a vigorous treatment problem inside prisons, as well as alternative sentencing programs in an expanded drug court program, the costly demand for new prison beds would be drastically reduced if not eliminated.

Furthermore, some studies show that the funds poured generously into education, the fewer funds required later for prisons, since better-educated young people whose hands and minds aren’t idle tend to steer avoid criminal behavior.

The question, of course, is whether a majority of Idaho legislators share Kempthorne’s vision.

Clearly, some Idaho politicians are driven by a tough-on-crime mentality that instinctively demands more and more prisons, regardless of the bankrupting cost of that strategy or the futility of correcting behavior.

A few others still are hostile to creative funding for education: they believe public schools waste money as it is and deserve no more, and teachers somehow are subversive influences on young minds.

But Kempthorne has powerful allies for his programs – the growing ranks of high-tech industry CEOs in Idaho who know the importance of education for workers as well as the children of their employees.

The governor is charting ways for Idaho to claim a place among states that think and plan bolder and with their eyes on bigger prizes in the future.




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