Gov. Butch Otter, after failing spectacularly last session to convince state lawmakers to take on his No. 1 priority – addressing a huge annual road funding shortfall – is trying a different approach for next year. Today, Otter’s chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, and key aide Clete Edmunson gathered together a group of more than 40, nearly half of them legislators, to seek input and support for a series of public meetings around the state this summer to highlight Idaho’s transportation crisis and the need for coming up with the money to address it, whether it comes through increased gas taxes, registration fees, other measures or some combination. To follow that up, Edmunson and Kreizenbeck will travel the state and meet with every legislator, and then develop legislation in the fall, again gather input, and present it for consideration in January.
Edmunson said the governor’s staff held a three-hour meeting with legislative leadership before the briefing, and plans briefings in the coming weeks for road construction industry representatives, lobbying groups, local government officials and more. Otter didn’t appear in person at today’s briefing, but in a video that will be shown at all the meetings, said, “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better, unless we act now to address those needs.” Idaho’s deteriorating roads and bridges threaten both the state’s economy and public safety, the governor said. “I hope you come away as convinced as I am that the time is now for us to act to build roads, to build bridges, and most of all to build consensus.”
Edmunson told the assembled legislators, state agency heads, reporters and others that Otter is no longer looking to make up the entire $240 million annual backlog in road funding in one fell swoop. “We’re talking about a gradual buildup – we’re not talking about $240 million next year,” he said. He exhorted the crowd, “This is a problem that faces all Idahoans, no matter what party. … We all rely on good roads. That is a proper role of government.”
House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “It’s a far cry from the last session and the fumbled attempts there to show the need. I think it’s a valid approach. … I was pleased that they are planning to come around throughout the state and even talk to each legislator. … I have to commend the governor for this change in course. This is probably going to be the No. 1 issue next session.”
House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “I think this is the right thing to do.” He noted, “There’s still a lot of people out there who say, ‘I see the need, but we can’t afford it.’ What happens if that’s the answer we get?” Denney said he’s personally convinced. “I think the need is there,” he said. “But whether or not it’s politically doable, I don’t know.”
Said Edmunson, “We want to do it right this year – we want to have a good game plan. … We’re asking you to work with us to make that tough vote, because it’s going to be a tough vote, but it’s going to be the right vote.” The public meetings will kick off in Caldwell on July 14, followed by Coeur d’Alene July 16, Lewiston July 17, Idaho Falls July 22, Pocatello on July 23 and Twin Falls and Boise in August.