Posts tagged: Phil Batt
When former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt was honored yesterday with the naming of the Idaho Transportation Department headquarters after him, he shared some transportation-related stories from back when. One was about changing a flat tire on the old White Bird Hill segment of Highway 95 in North Idaho in the sleet and rain with a pregnant wife and two big dogs in the car. Others touched on other “hair raising” stretches of road in the state before they were upgraded. “They really raised your eyebrows,” he said.
Then there was this story from his time as governor: Batt once was headed out to a funeral for some wildland firefighters south of Kuna when a Russian diplomat stopped by his office. “I told him I’d give him 10 minutes. I knew I had to get going. A half-hour later, I finally booted him out of there and we got in the car.”
Batt told an aide to “step on it,” and put in a call to the state police, saying, “Cut us a little slack, we’re running late. We need to get over to this funeral.” Laughter started up among the audience. “Course, the radios picked that up and it was in the newspapers and all over the place,” Batt said. “I had to apologize and write a poem for the paper and all that. But that was one of my easier duties, it was all right.”
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.”
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two former governors oppose modifying Idaho's 1995 nuclear cleanup agreement with the federal government after a new draft report suggested changes be considered as part of efforts to assure the Idaho National Laboratory's future. Republican Gov. Phil Batt sent a letter to the Idaho Statesman Monday and Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus wrote to Department of Commerce director Jeff Sayer, who headed up the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission. Sayer's panel last week released a preliminary report to spur public comment about Idaho's nuclear future. Its authors wrote, among other things, that changes to the 1995 pact could help preserve the INL's status as America's lead nuclear energy laboratory. To that, Batt cautioned Sayer against “modification of my nuclear waste agreement,” while Andrus reiterated his opposition to accepting more nuclear waste.
In the past few days, three Idaho governors - former Govs. Cecil Andrus and Phil Batt and current Gov. Butch Otter - have published guest opinions in the Idaho Statesman newspaper with strongly worded messages about potential changes in the nuclear waste agreement Batt famously negotiated with the feds, guaranteeing that Idaho won't become the nation's future nuke waste repository. Today, Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker sorts through the charges; you can read his full report here. The upshot: Both Andrus and Batt are urging Otter to stick with the 1995 agreement, and despite possible changes outlined by current INL Director John Grossenbacher, Otter is pledging that he will.
Phil Batt wasn’t Idaho’s flashiest governor, but the onion farmer from Wilder was one of its most respected, both for his fiscal restraint and his political vision. So when Batt, now 83, stepped away from his retirement on Tuesday to endorse Vaughn Ward in an Idaho GOP congressional primary race, it resounded. “I think the governor understands the gravity of the situation, with trying to take back this seat,” said Ward, who faces Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, and three other Republicans in the GOP primary race for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District seat - which now is held by conservative Democrat Walt Minnick.
When Batt was chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, he rebuilt it from a low point at which Idaho’s state Senate was split 21-21 between Republicans and Democrats into the powerhouse it stands today, controlling every statewide elective office, three of four seats in the congressional delegation and two-thirds of the Legislature. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.