Gov. Phil Batt scored a major political victory Tuesday when the Senate Transportation Committee narrowly cleared his plan for bigger trucks on specific Idaho highways for a final legislative vote.
The committee’s 5-4 vote marked the first time in years that any bill calling for trucks heavier than 105,500 pounds on state highways has reached the full Senate for a vote.
It came after more than three hours of the continuing tug-of-war between Batt and the railroads and what Chairman Evan Frasure, an opponent, called the most thorough and effective lobbying effort by both sides on any issue in his memory. Sens. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, and Lin Whitworth, D-Inkom, both expressed resentment over what they said were threats unsuccessfully aimed at forcing them to back the bill.
Schroeder said he received three times as much mail and phone calls on truck weights as he has on abortion.
Batt spent an enormous amount of political capital in trying to free the House-passed measure from the committee, where opponents earlier in the day believed they had the votes to kill it.
“Now, we have to do everything we can to obtain passage on the Senate floor,” the governor said within moments of the committee action. “It will be a hard fight. But it’s an important bill for Idaho.”
It was his biggest legislative victory since 1996 when he pulled out the stops to secure House passage of the mandate that farmers and ranchers get workers compensation insurance coverage for their hands.
The truck proposal raises the maximum weight from 105,500 to 129,000 pounds on selected highways in eastern and southern Idaho in a three-year pilot project to determine whether safety and road damage concerns are justified.
“If it works, and it’s safe and it proves out, it’s up to you to see that it goes on,” State Transportation Board Chairman Chuck Winder said.
But advocates conceded it was also intended to send a message to Congress to either lift the weight limits to 129,000 pounds on all federal roads, including the interstates, or give the states the right to do so. And if Congress makes that move, the bill calls for the weight limit on nearly all other state roads to go up immediately.
Batt pressed for the legislation in his State of the State address two months ago, in large part because of his anger over poor Union Pacific Railroad service.
The critical committee votes came from Republicans Clyde Boatright of Rathdrum and Hal Bunderson of Meridian. Boatright had told Batt earlier that he probably would oppose the bill but wound up supporting it, “not because of what was said outside this room but because of the testimony.”
The Panhandle lawmaker denied that the administration had threatened to oppose cash to improve U.S. Highway 95, the only link North Idaho has with the south, if he opposed the weight increase.
Bunderson expressed serious reservations about the provision raising weights on all roads if Congress acts and tried a compromise that would have had that provision essentially stripped from the bill before a final Senate vote. But after that was rejected, he declined to be the deciding vote to kill the governor’s bill and sided with the retiring chief executive.
Even Frasure was a target when the administration arranged for Frank VanderSloot, who runs Melaleuca Inc., to testify for the bill. Frasure works for Melaleuca. But VanderSloot’s declaration that it was “an important issue to me” did not change Frasure’s opposition.