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Batt calls on Idahoans to step up, increase funding for roads

Idaho named its state Transportation Department headquarters after former Gov. Phil Batt today, and at the ceremony unveiling the new name, Batt sent a stern message to the current Legislature and political leaders: Idaho needs to step up to fund its transportation needs, as it did for many years under many governors, but hasn’t for the past 17 years; read my full story here at spokesman.com. Batt, who served as a senator, senate leader, transportation board member and lieutenant governor before being elected governor in 1994, pushed through the state’s last gas tax increase in 1996, and it hasn’t been raised since. That’s the main way Idaho funds its roads, and the per-gallon tax not only isn’t indexed for inflation, it’s seen declines as vehicles have become more efficient.

Batt recalled major upgrades Idaho’s roads have seen over the years, including treacherous sections of U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho and down south, Horseshoe Bend hill, which “used to regularly develop mysterious sinking sections.” Now, he said, they’re safer, more useful highways. “These projects and others like them throughout the state cost a pile of money, but Idahoans in early days were willing to tax themselves to pay the bill,” Batt told the crowd gathered for the building renaming ceremony. But that’s now changed, he said. When the state decided to upgrade the freeway between Boise and Canyon County, it borrowed money from the federal government through GARVEE bonds. But Batt warned that federal funding can’t be relied on, and will be decreasing in the future. “We need to get together and raise the finances to take care of all our state's transportation needs, not just the Treasure Valley, and not by borrowing money – that honeymoon is over.”

Amid laughter, Batt said, “I ran as a skinflint for governor and I served as a tightwad.” But, he said, “What could be more equitable than charging users fees for our roads, gas tax and registration fees? … We’re broke – our credit card is maxed out.”

Then, abruptly, he said, “But enough of my lecture. I just wanted to thank you all for the honor, this is a great honor for me.”

Numerous speakers lauded Batt, whose accomplishments over his career included major transportation upgrades for the state, the Idaho Human Rights Act, securing long-sought workers’ compensation for agricultural workers, signing a nuclear waste agreement with the federal government requiring waste to be removed from the state, and much more. Said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, “Gov. Batt will always be remembered for doing the right thing, even if it’s not popular at the time.” Idaho’s congressional delegation, in a letter read at the ceremony, called Batt “a true innovator in fiscal matters, infrastructure and overall leadership.” Gov. Butch Otter said to laughter, “I couldn’t say enough about Phil, and I’d spend a lot more time than the few minutes that he ever allowed me as his lieutenant governor.”

The ITD headquarters on State Street is now officially emblazoned, “State of Idaho, Transportation Department, Philip E. Batt Building.”  The ceremony included music, including Batt's compsition “Freedom Idaho,” performed by West Junior High School students; Batt, a noted jazz clarinetist, accompanied them on clarinet. Transportation Board member Jim Kempton told Batt, “I look forward to walking into this building every time I come here with your name on it.”

Several lawmakers in attendance said they took Batt’s message about transportation funding to heart. “I think he’s absolutely correct,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “This generation cannot duck our responsibility to maintain the investment that previous generations have put into our roads, so when the time’s right, I’m optimistic that we’ll step up.”

Batt said if the gas tax set in 1996 – “two bits” a gallon, or 25 cents – were the same percentage of what people were then paying for gas, it’d be 76 cents today. “Butch has tried his best to get some funding,” Batt said after the ceremony. “It’s the legislators that wouldn’t cooperate. There’s some talk that they won’t do it again this year because it’s an election year. I never believed in that philosophy, but I understand it.”

Otter called Batt’s warning “a great message,” adding, “And I think it’s a message that you’re going to hear more about.”


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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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