North Idaho has been “badly wounded” by floods, Gov. Phil Batt told a joint session of the Legislature Tuesday, and the whole state needs to help it heal.
The governor, in an unprecedented address to the Legislature, called on lawmakers to approve emergency highway funds and said he’ll dip into the state’s general fund for up to $30 million to match federal disaster funds.
“This is not a North Idaho flood,” Batt said. “This is an Idaho flood. Every one of us here, and everyone in Idaho, is affected in some way. We are in this together.”
Batt also said he’ll: Propose legislation to forgive property taxes on buildings destroyed in the floods.
Propose legislation to forgive interest on sales taxes that hard-hit businesses don’t report on time.
Issue an executive order to give the state Department of Labor and Industrial Services authority to draw up emergency building permits.
Continue pushing his bill to lift the 3 percent cap on local government budget increases for emergency repairs.
“When disaster strikes, people expect their government to respond,” he said.
In the hours following his speech, the House Transportation and Defense Committee wrangled over how to add emergency funds to its pending legislation to raise Idaho’s gas tax. The legislation, developed by an interim committee after exhaustive hearings, is aimed at repairing deteriorating roads and bridges statewide.
Though some of the mechanics were left hanging Tuesday, the committee settled on a plan to put the proposed 4-cent-per-gallon hike into effect early, with the first $6 million raised going entirely to match federal disaster funds for North Idaho road repairs. The legislation had set a July 1 starting date for the hike.
If the tax hike starts April 1, the $6 million can be in hand by the end of June, said Dwight Bower, state transportation director. That should cover the local and state match for needed road repairs in the north.
That was the general idea Batt outlined in his speech. “We could pass an emergency gas tax hike to pay for this damage,” he told lawmakers. “But in view of the fact that our road system is deteriorating all over the state, we should pass the gas tax measures now before you, with some modifications to those, and meet our obligations to bring our roads and bridges up to par.”
Batt also detailed the damage North Idaho has suffered. “Our initial assessment is that 163 homes were destroyed. Another 441 homes were damaged by the raging waters. Many Idahoans lost a lifetime of personal effects.”
The floods destroyed wastewater treatment systems in Shoshone and Benewah counties, damaged bull trout populations in tributaries to Lake Pend Oreille and wiped out all of the 40,000 wild chinook smolts destined for Lake Coeur d’Alene this spring. State parks suffered more than half a million dollars’ damage; local and state roads need $24 million in repairs; and the University of Idaho and North Idaho College both saw damage.
Federal disaster relief funds generally require a 25 percent state and local match, Batt said. He said he’ll dip into Idaho’s “rainy day fund” budget reserve account, the state’s water pollution control account and the Health and Welfare Department’s cooperative welfare fund, if necessary.
“I ask that you use the greatest caution in funding additional budget requests for money during this session until we get this sorted out,” he said. “I assure you I will not spend one dollar that cannot be justified.”
After the speech, state Sen. Mary Lou Reed, D-Coeur d’Alene, said she was “very moved.”
“It’s clear he is trying to give us a report and say that now the Legislature needs to act,” she said.
Rep. Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint, said of Batt: “I thought he grew about 3 inches in stature.”
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