After two hours of tense debate, the Senate has voted 23-12 to kill a controversial highway bonding plan that pitted the House against the Senate. The defeat, which throws into doubt the plans to wrap up this year’s legislative session today, came because the bill listed specific road projects and specific dollar amounts for each – the opposite of what Gov. Butch Otter called for at the opening of this year’s legislative session, when he said those decisions should be left to experts, not politicians.
North Idaho senators argued strongly against the bill, saying it takes the state down a dangerous road toward politically picking road projects and letting lawmakers direct state dollars right to their districts.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “The people of Idaho need to understand that this project list was developed by a small handful of legislators and a private contractor. This project list and dollar amounts were not approved by the Idaho Transportation Department and the Idaho Transportation Board.”
Keough noted that one Treasure Valley project, on state Highway 16 from Emmett to I-84, gets $17 million next year under the bill. The original GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) bonding plan envisioned just $4 million this year for that project, and a total of just over $9 million throughout the program. She asked how that project grew so much. “It did not go through ITD, it did not go through the ITD board,” she said. Some say the project is ready to go, but that’s true of many projects around the state, Keough said. “I can pull out five. But my project and your project weren’t represented at that table with a small group of people and a private contractor for the state.”
Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “It’s a trophy bill for the Treasure Valley.”
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s long been a proponent of bonding to fund major improvements to Idaho highways, including Highway 95, the state’s only north-south route. But Goedde said he voted for GARVEE bonding last year for the wrong reason – because North Idaho would get lots of money. “I’m here to tell you I was wrong,” he said. This year’s bill sends more than 70 percent of the next round of bonding to the Treasure Valley, which has just 20 percent of the state-managed road miles, Goedde said. “Now that may be well and good, we may need that money – but I question whether we should be making that allocation,” he told the Senate. “We’re going to fight this battle every year before GARVEE’s done. There’ll be winners and losers on this floor. I say let’s stop it now. .. I say we can wait a year, if that’s what we need to do and do it right. I would rather not spend money than do it wrong.”
Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “Senators, here’s the problem now – if we stop now, we will never be able to catch up with these projects. … We do GARVEE bonding now, or we don’t do it at all.” Federal dollars are drying up, McGee warned. GARVEE bonds borrow against future federal highway allocations to build projects now. He noted, “This is the plan that the joint committee sent us … twice.” Some want another bill, he said, but, “We tried that.” The second bill had the same project list as the first one the committee passed. McGee said the projects listed in the bill are the same ones originally targeted for the GARVEE program. “We didn’t just dream ‘em up,” he said. “A small group of legislators in a room – this is how we do things, this is how we write bills.”
Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, said, “We’re talking about who won and who lost, and guess what, senators – we lost. … Frankly … I think it’s time for us to go home.”