Promising an administration marked by moderation and common sense, Republican Gov. Phil Batt on Monday laid out his plan for a government that encourages private initiative and advancement while remaining responsive to those truly in need.
“Cutting state spending so far that the state cannot provide necessary services is not common sense,” Batt said in his 42-minute State of the State address to the opening session of the 53rd Legislature.
“Eliminating outmoded and wasteful expenditures is common sense,” the new governor said to one of 46 interruptions by applause.
Although the details on most proposals will be included in his budget message on Wednesday, Batt discussed his intentions on property tax relief, still-unspecified welfare reform, less regulatory intrusion into business, more efficient public and higher education, a tougher juvenile justice system and a leaner overall state government.
“If you don’t understand where the governor wants to go after this address, you weren’t listening,” Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Twiggs, R-Blackfoot, said.
But the state’s first GOP governor in 24 years surprised the nation’s most Republican Legislature when he indicated plans to include in his budget an increase in highway user fees such as the fuel tax, even though he campaigned on a platform of opposing increases in any state taxes.
The 67-year-old veteran political activist also drew a combination of laughter and applause when he signaled his intentions to seek a second term - something he hinted at last week in his inaugural address and reportedly declared to the Republican Central Committee over the weekend.
He set the stage for higher highway user fees by emphasizing the importance of the transportation network to a growing state like Idaho.
“Construction and maintenance costs are defrayed almost entirely by user fees,” Batt said. “Gas and diesel taxes, per gallon, using a constant index, won’t buy as much now as they did 50 years ago. I’ll be addressing this problem in my budget message.”
Batt also created prospects for controversy by calling on lawmakers to investigate again the possibility of merging the three universities into a single-university system. And he was unclear on whether he would continue to oppose attempts by the Navy to ship additional nuclear waste to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
The still-to-be-disclosed highway user fee proposal left Republicans leaders in an awkward position after a fall campaign in which they railed against taxes and government spending and convinced voters to give them complete charge.
Twiggs said he could not support either a fuel tax increase or a boost in registration fees and others put chances for either approach between “slim and none.”
“Republicans, more or less, said to the public that we won’t give them any increases in taxes,” House Transportation Chairman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said. “Well, I look at any kind of fee or tax as about the same thing.”
Although the fuel tax was increased three-cents-a-gallon to 21 cents in 1991, Senate Transportation Chairman Dennis Hansen, R-Soda Springs, said the state should increase state revenues for road work by as much as $30 million. The existing tax and fees will raise about $210 million this year, just over half from the tax. A third of that goes to local highway needs.
“I don’t think we’re into much of a tax or fee or any revenue measure that takes money out of people’s pockets,” House Speaker Michael Simpson, R-Blackfoot, said.
But Twiggs conceded that unlike the quick rejection the majority would have surely given a similar proposal from former Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, “with a Republican governor and Republican Legislature, it adds a new dimension. Batt’s going to have some lobbying power that Cece never did.”
On higher education, Batt stopped short of flatly proposing that the universities be combined into a single entity, but he suggested both the Legislature and the Board of Education should study that approach - one that has been proposed and rejected any number of times over the past decade.
He said the quality of Idaho’s schools was being damaged by “a shrill dialogue emerging over turf battles, pre-eminence and one-upmanship between our colleges and universities and their respective boosters.”
And while Batt reiterated his belief that Idahoans should not be “patsies for the federal government” and turn their state into the nation’s permanent nuclear waste dump, he said he was meeting with officials of the Navy on Thursday on their attempt to ship more radioactive waste to the INEL. It is the first test of his administration’s commitment to the hard line on waste shipments Andrus had taken since bringing the issue to national attention in 1988.
On one hand, Batt said he needed “ironclad assurances that Idaho will not become a permanent repository,” while on the other he said the waste can be transported and safely and that INEL has the best scientists and facilities to accommodate it.
To further his view of that government should meddle less, Batt urged lawmakers to abandoned their annual sessions for a session every two years augmented with special sessions as needed or a short budget session in the off year. It received the loudest applause and cheers from lawmakers, but leaders viewed it as a long-shot for enactment.
Batt recounted the message voters sent last November when a Republican tide swept across Idaho and the nation. But he warned his partisan colleagues that voters wanted leaner government and tax relief - not necessarily the GOP in control.
“Let’s be careful that we do not overemphasize the political aspects of it,” he said. “The voters have a very tenuous relationship with any political party. We Republicans can be removed from power in a single election, if we put politics above the desires of the electorate.”
MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: State of the State