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McGee: Guv should be able to oust ITD head

Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, has unveiled legislation to give the governor authority to fire the state transportation director, who now reports to the Idaho Transportation Board. The clash between McGee and ITD Director Pam Lowe that the bill symbolizes comes just as the governor is making his big push to get lawmakers to sign onto his transportation funding proposal; a House vote looms on Thursday. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.


Row over ID roads chief boils over
By JOHN MILLER
Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A row between Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John McGee and Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe has boiled over into the public, just as Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter makes a last-ditch push to get lawmakers to pass more than $100 million in tax and fee hikes for highway funding.

McGee, R-Caldwell, unveiled a bill Tuesday to give Otter the authority to oust Lowe. Directors are now appointed by the Idaho Transportation Board, which sets Idaho road-building policy.

Clete Edmunson, Otter’s transportation adviser, declined to comment on whether the governor is trying to force Lowe out of her job, which she’s held since December 2006.

McGee, a big backer of Otter’s transportation aims, says he’s dissatisfied with Lowe’s performance, but won’t go into specifics. Other lawmakers say they’ve heard laments over the agency’s accountability and responsiveness at a tense time when the governor is asking for millions in higher taxes during a recession.

“We all need to work together to find a fair way to fix Idaho‘s roads, whether it’s the department, the Legislature or the governor’s office,” McGee told The Associated Press, before declining to detail his concerns with Lowe. “Part of my job is to make sure we’re all headed in the right direction.”

Through a spokesman, Lowe declined to be interviewed for this story.

The House plans to vote Thursday on Otter’s scaled back tax-and-fee hike proposal. It’s been slashed from his original $174 million plan. Now, a dispute over who is leading the agency that ultimately will oversee how any new revenue is spent could complicate matters.

Lowe’s agency would also oversee about $229 million in federal stimulus money Otter wants for road construction. And all this comes as skeptical lawmakers haggle with the governor over the latest $125 million “Connecting Idaho” road building bond installment. Otter this month threatened stimulus-funded projects in lawmakers’ districts, saying if they don’t approve Connecting Idaho, he’d use the federal money for that, instead.

So far in the 2009 session, legislators have rejected two key pieces of Otter’s roads-funding legislation, a proposed 6 percent rental car tax and a plan to roughly double the cost of Idaho‘s specialty license plates.

They did approve lifting the tax exemption for ethanol, worth $4 million annually to the state.

During committee hearings on Otter’s bills, Lowe attended, but left it primarily to her aides to outline the proposals to lawmakers.

Members of the Transportation Committee on Tuesday agreed to refer McGee’s bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said that was by no means an endorsement of the proposal.

“I don’t want the director of the Transportation Department to be a purely political appointee that could change at the whim of the governor, or when a new governor comes into office,” Werk said.

Idaho‘s governor selects most state agency directors, with a couple of exceptions: the Transportation Department, as well as the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, whose director is chosen by the Fish and Game Commission.

Darrell Manning, Transportation Board chairman appointed by Otter two years ago, said Idaho lawmakers in the 1950s gave the board authority to appoint the agency’s director. That was largely to shield highway building — and the millions of dollars that accompanies it — from ever-shifting political winds, he said.

Manning acknowledged to the AP that McGee has expressed concerns about Lowe, but he declined go into specifics.

He hasn’t heard of similar dissatisfaction with her performance from the governor’s office or other members of the Transportation Board, who hail from Idaho‘s six regional transportation districts, are appointed by the governor and serve six-year terms. They gave her passing grades the last time she was reviewed about a year ago, he said.

“They were not unhappy with her,” he said.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a Transportation Committee member, said she has “a good working relationship” with Lowe, but has heard rumblings of discontent.

“What I’m hearing, there’s concern about a lack of accountability, not just directed at the director, but also at the board,” Keough said. “It’s all swirled together. Each legislator is an advocate for their own district. There’s so much pent-up demand for projects and a shrinking amount of money to pay for them. On top of that, asking a conservative legislature to raise taxes kind of lights the fuse.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Eagle, another Senate Transportation Committee member, knows just how political the highway agency can be: He chaired the Idaho Transportation Department board under Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in 2005, helping lead the push to pass Connecting Idaho after a veto battle.

Winder wants to hear McGee’s bill, and help determine if there’s a way to give the governor more sway over a director when advocating while still preserving the position’s professionalism. Lowe, for instance, is a former district engineer.

“What I am hearing around here, some people are saying she should be replaced,” Winder told the AP. “What other people are saying is, she’s sort of a lightning rod and that the governor, as he tries to advance his transportation plan, doesn’t have any control over the director.”

For his part, McGee insists this isn’t a vendetta against Lowe.

“It’s more a process issue than it is a personality issue,” he said, adding he’s still deciding whether to ask for a full hearing on his bill in the 2009 session, meaning it could remain a symbolic shot at Lowe’s leadership.

 

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

 


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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