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Governor Asks For 4-Cent Hike In Gasoline Tax Batt Also Hints In Speech That He May Run For Re-Election

Gov. Phil Batt hinted Monday that he’ll seek a second term as he urged lawmakers to raise the gas tax to fund road repairs and require Idaho farmers to carry workers’ compensation insurance on their farmhands.

Neither of those ideas is an easy sell as the farmer-dominated Legislature opens its election-year session.

But Batt drew plenty of applause during his 42-minute State of the State address. He recounted the initial-year successes of the first Republican administration in 24 years - successes that Batt remains convinced were overshadowed by the persisting debate over nuclear waste.

“A year ago, I called for common-sense solutions - and that’s what I got,” the governor said. “This is a new theme in government. We stopped finding new ways to spend money. Instead, we found new ways to save money.”

In a speech that was short on specifics about his 1996 agenda and long on details about the achievements of the past 12 months, Batt made clear that his commitment to rein in government activity and check the growth of the public payroll remains intact.

But the core of that policy apparently is being withheld until Wednesday when Batt releases his 1996-97 state budget proposal- a spending blueprint that his outgoing budget director, Dean Van Engelen, already has acknowledged is austere.

The governor cited a laundry list of administrative changes he said are saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year and making government easier to navigate. Those policies, he said, have worked to make government the servant of its people without sacrificing Idaho’s economic stability.

“We can, and will, continue to make economic progress,” the governor said, but he emphasized that it will be progress originating with Idaho citizens and the businesses they run and work for and not by the their government.

At 68, Batt has been fighting the belief of many that he will not seek a second term in 1998, and he has used a line in both his inaugural State of the State address last year and the one on Monday to dispute that view.

In this year’s speech, the governor inserted “by the time I start my second term” ahead of his pledge to obtaining the technology necessary to accommodate electronic filing of all reports and applications required by the state.

At the same time, however, he told the overwhelmingly Republican House and Senate that he solidly backs significant increases in both the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees and will fight for extension of worker’s compensation coverage to farm laborers.

“What is wise is not always easy,” he told lawmakers.

The proposed 4-cent-a-gallon hike in the 21-cent fuel tax and the 30 percent to 50 percent increase in registration fees to “keep pace with growth demands” is given less than an even chance of passing. Batt himself admitted the odds were 50-50.

But, he said, “Our quality of life suffers when we spend our days in traffic jams or avoiding potholes on roads that have gone too long without repair.”

More likely, legislative leaders said, was a compromise of perhaps 2 cents a gallon on the fuel tax and a few bucks on registration fees - a plan many concede will do little to cut into the multibillion-dollar back-log of needed road maintenance.

Ending Idaho’s status as one of just three states not requiring worker’s compensation coverage for farm laborers was rejected by two-thirds of the House last year when Batt included it in his legislative agenda but did little to promote its approval.

This year the governor, a farmer who for years voluntarily has provided his workers with worker’s compensation coverage, said he will try to exert more influence on the outcome of the vote to cure what he calls “this glaring deficiency in our society.”

But he also indicated he was willing to financially buy off farmers if that was what it took to end their stifling opposition.

“If it is necessary to give farmers relief from taxes somewhere else, let us determine where and get on with it,” he said. “Our workers can wait no longer.”

On the other side, Batt stood against demands for another round of property tax relief he believes the state cannot afford after last year’s $41 million cut essentially wiped out all discretionary revenue.

He criticized calls for the state to help local property taxpayers with school construction costs. House Speaker Mike Simpson, R-Blackfoot, has proposed three versions of such legislation.

“Each proposal comes at the expense of something else,” the governor said. “In every case, they require raising taxes or diverting funds from an already frugal budget. … We must be absolutely honest about any plan.”

He promised unspecified proposals “in the next few weeks” on reducing the cash going into the “black hole” of the prison system.

The governor also renewed his call for legislative endorsement of the 44 recommendations from his special task force on welfare reform to create a system that encourages achieving self-sufficiency.

A special committee will be set up to review Medicaid reform, he said, with a special session likely after Congress acts on that program.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.