BOISE - Senators had sharp questions for Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, over his bill aimed at blocking lawsuits over highway megaloads, and after much debate, voted Thursday to substantially amend the bill.
Harwood urged against that, saying amendments proposed by the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association and others “virtually guts this bill.”
The bill requires anyone filing a lawsuit to block a transportation project on Idaho roads to post a bond equal to 5 percent of the insured value of the load, with the money going to the Idaho Transportation Department. In the case of the giant megaloads that prompted a lawsuit over their transport on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, state Transportation Board Director Darrell Manning said the value would be “in the millions.”
Thursday’s action came a day after ITD announced that ExxonMobil has submitted new plans to run up to 66 megaloads of oil equipment from Lewiston up Highway 95 to Coeur d’Alene, then east on I-90 to Montana en route to the Alberta oil sands project in Canada.
Though half the size of the Highway 12 loads, these loads still would be wide enough to block both lanes of travel on the two-lane portions of Highway 95.
Senators and others said Harwood’s bill was confusing and poorly worded.
Barbara Jorden, lobbyist for the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association, told the Senate Transportation Committee, “We in theory don’t disagree with this bill, but it is very confusing to us, I think just as confusing to our association as it is to you trying to understand it.”
She said the bill appears to confuse bonds with fees, and urged extensive amendments if lawmakers weren’t willing to just kill the bill outright. “It needs some more significant work than I think we can right now do to fix it,” she said.
This late in the legislative session - Idaho lawmakers are hoping to wrap up their session by next week or the week after - bills sent to the Senate’s 14th Order for amendments often end up dying there without further action.
Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, said the bill targets lawsuits against the Idaho Transportation Department, but also seems to envision the business proposing the haul as a co-defendant in the lawsuit.
“I fail to see how that business becomes a party to the action,” he said.
Hannah Brass, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, noted a similar concern in how the bill treats the business involved, when the lawsuit is over ITD’s issuance of a permit. “They’re not the ones who issue the permits to themselves,” she said.
Harwood told the committee he wanted to end “frivolous lawsuits,” and said, “It’s not right for a group to file this suit like this, cost the taxpayers that kind of money, cost the industry that kind of money, and then walk away scot-free.”
But Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, noted that the lawsuit against the Highway 12 megaloads was never held to be “frivolous,” by either the courts or a state hearing officer. Harwood responded, “I just used that term because sometimes that’s how I feel they are.”
When Werk asked Harwood about his contention that people can find judges who’ll rule any way they want, Harwood said, “Certain judges do lean in different directions. A lot of times maybe their … personal opinion, and I know in my case often my own personal opinion overrides the right thing to do.”
A motion to kill the bill outright failed on a 3-6 vote, and the motion to amend it then passed, 6-3. Among those voting with the majority were North Idaho Sens. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, who chairs the committee, and Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.
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