North Idahoans praised new Gov. Phil Batt on Monday for his plans for salvage logging in the wake of last summer’s forest fires, property tax relief and economic development on Idaho’s five Indian reservations.
Even House Democratic leader Jim Stoicheff of Sandpoint found a lot to like in the Republican’s speech.
“Boy, I think he punched the button on the nose as far as what the general public thinks,” Stoicheff said. He said northern Idaho millworkers and loggers would approve of Batt’s promise to push for logging of burned-over forests.
“We have a huge opportunity to salvage burned-over federal timber, but the bureaucrats and environmental purists are going into their familiar litany of delays,” Batt said. “My administration will do everything possible to prevent this,” he said, receiving a sharp round of applause.
Panhandle lawmakers, elected from the home of Idaho’s property tax rebellion, cheered Batt’s proposal to shift $40 million in school funding off local property taxes and onto state income and sales taxes.
“I like the fact that we have a governor who’s willing to work on property taxes,” said freshman Rep. Jeff Alltus, R-Coeur d’Alene.
Senate Assistant Minority Leader Mary Lou Reed of Coeur d’Alene said she was gratified that Batt’s property tax relief plan includes budget and property assessment caps, two elements of a tax relief measure she pushed last year.
And she said Batt’s promise to work for job creation on Idaho’s five reservations was a welcome one. “That is an issue where we have really dropped the ball since the gaming issue,” she said.
“With all the prosperity in other parts of the state, it is intolerable that there continue to be pockets of extreme poverty,” Batt said. “Most of these are on Indian reservations … I am instructing our state Commerce director to concentrate the full power of his office on attracting job-creating opportunities to these areas, as well as to other depressed areas of the state.”
Tribal representatives welcomed the attention.
“I’m very pleased that he is targeting Native Americans or even addressing their issues,” Kootenai tribal chairman Velma Bahe said. “I’m kind of curious to see what he thinks he’s going to be able to do to change the poverty on the reservations.”
She said the Kootenai will again propose economic development incentives to the Legislature.
Batt’s commitment may complete the bargain lawmakers made four years ago when they outlawed tribal casino gaming while promising to help tribal leaders attract jobs to the reservations, said Coeur d’Alene tribal press secretary Bob Bostwick.
“The important thing here is that there finally is a follow-up to some of the things that were said back then,” Bostwick said. “Phil Batt is a straightforward, honest guy, absolutely true to his word.”
Department of Commerce director Jim Hawkins, formerly of Coeur d’Alene, said he’s ready to expand the state’s limited efforts to help tribes.
“We’re here to listen and to work with the tribes,” he said. “I think we can put a real partnership together.”
Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Twiggs, R-Idaho Falls, who helped block a tax exemption bill proposed by the Kootenai tribe last year, said Batt could guarantee the passage of such a measure by simply endorsing it.
Although lawmakers of both parties generally applauded Batt’s agenda, some said they are waiting to hear more about his plans for improvement of Idaho schools.
Sen. Tim Tucker, D-Porthill, said the speech left him wanting more. “When you have 75 percent of your budget wrapped up in education, I thought he would spend a little more time on education,” Tucker said.
State Controller J.D. Williams echoed Tucker’s concern. “I was a little surprised there were only five paragraphs on education,” he said. “It is the most important function of state government.”
Batt will present his budget to the Legislature on Wednesday.