Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, commented, “It’s a good day for North Idaho,” just after the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee voted unanimously just now to approve funding for the North Idaho water rights adjudication. Just before that, they’d voted 19-1 in favor of a new GARVEE bonding plan that restores $35 million in funding for the Garwood-to-Sagle project to turn congested U.S. Highway 95 between Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene into a four-lane freeway.
And that was before the unanimous JFAC vote to fund SB 1407, which adds a new district judge in North Idaho (and also one in Canyon County). The bill already has passed the Senate and is awaiting a final vote in the House. Since 1995, court caseloads in Kootenai County have jumped 40 percent, while they’re up 51 percent in Canyon County.
The big news is the highway bonding plan, which re-jiggers the $200 million first round of bonding to take in the Highway 95 project and reduce funding for an eastern Idaho project that wasn’t yet ready to go.
“It has been a good morning,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “The co-chairs were very sensitive to the northern legislators who worked as a team to restore that funding and additionally held the department to accountability in terms of what the real numbers were.”
The $35 million figure, Keough said, is what the Transportation Department now says it will take to acquire right-of-way and do engineering in the next two years for the freeway project.
The one “no” vote on the bonding plan came from Boise GOP Rep. Cliff Bayer. He said he’s concerned that there’s a movement on to “push the property tax issue to the ballot when we should deal with it,” and at the same time to move forward with GARVEE bonding – which he believes should go to a vote of the people. “There are big questions regarding constitutionality,” Bayer said. “I could support a very significant GARVEE program if it were through the ballot to the people, as provided by the state Constitution.”
An Idaho Attorney General’s opinion last year cleared the GARVEE bonding plan, which comes under a special law Congress passed to allow states to borrow against future federal highway allocations. But Bayer said he still has questions and wants an independent legal opinion.
Meanwhile, property taxes are on the agenda for the Senate today. Already, the Senate has voted near-unanimously in favor of setting up a new interim study committee on property tax issues next summer – with the idea that this session will address some, but not all, of the problems.
A constitutional amendment also is in the works to address shifting school funding from the property tax to the sales tax. That would require two-thirds legislative approval plus a vote of the people next November. And some of the House-passed property tax reform bills could come up for votes in the full Senate today; the first one, eliminating a tax loophole for rural developers and land speculators, passed yesterday.
The North Idaho water rights adjudication funding addresses legislation that likely will come up for final passage in the Senate today. Approved funding is $1.3 million for next year – and it could add up to as much as $16 million by 2015. Idaho is just completing a huge, multimillion-dollar water rights adjudication in southern Idaho. The process sorts out who has rights to how much water.
Even Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, supported the funding. “I think this is a necessary evil – I think we have to do this,” he said.
“It’s a recognition that northern water quantity and water quality issues are as important as those in the south,” Keough said, “and this is the beginning of a very long process.” Adjudication, she said, will allow North Idaho to protect its water against calls from downstream interests, including those in Washington.