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News >  Idaho

Highway plan shifts into second gear

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)
Josh Wright And Betsy Z. Russell Staff writers

BOISE – The House Transportation Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to send Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s highway plan to the full House, after legislative leaders and the governor’s staff agreed on a compromise on the much-disputed measure that has deadlocked the legislative session.

With little debate, the same committee that spent five hours discussing the issue in a hearing last week quickly agreed to send SB 1183 to the full House for amendments. It took just 30 minutes for the panel to make a decision in a jam-packed hearing room full of legislators, lobbyists and reporters.

“I think this will pass out of the House with a very wide majority,” said Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, a member of the committee and staunch supporter of the governor’s plan.

Legislative leaders said they expect the prolonged session – which is in its 87th day, the fourth-longest in state history – will end by Thursday.

Kempthorne’s $1.6 billion bonding plan for highway projects around the state, including major upgrades to U.S. Highway 95, ignited a huge battle in the House, with the governor vetoing eight House bills and infuriating many House members. After days of negotiations, however, both sides agreed to soften their stances.

The revamped bill includes a graduated cap on how much future federal highway funding can be spent under the measure and gives more authority to the state Transportation Board to replace projects on the list that are deemed unfeasible.

The governor’s plan calls for borrowing against future federal highway allocations to the state, using a special kind of bonds called GARVEE bonds, or Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles. With the extra funds, the state can complete 30 years’ worth of projects in the next decade.

“I think this is a pretty exciting concept that we’re adopting today,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.

The list of 13 projects includes a freeway from Coeur d’Alene to Sandpoint, an upgrade of Highway 95 from State Highway 1 to the Canadian border and four lanes from Moscow to Lewiston. It also includes a new route at the southern end of Highway 95 that would slice half an hour off the north-south trip from North Idaho to Boise.

“These roads need to be addressed, and the sooner we can do it the better,” Nonini said.

Several North Idaho lawmakers were present at the meeting, including Hayden Lake GOP Sen. Mike Jorgenson, who told Nonini before the hearing started, “Bob, do the right thing.”

The original legislation put no limit on how much of Idaho’s allocation each year could go to pay off the bonds, but the House and governor agreed to a 20 percent limit of the future highway allocations for the first four years and a 30 percent cap in the fifth year. Any increase after that would have to be approved by both houses of the Legislature and the governor.

Much of the discussion during the hearing centered on the cap, which many House members have contended had to be added for the bill to gain approval.

“The amendments took it in a direction I want to see it go,” said Athol Republican Rep. Phil Hart, who voted against the measure last week in the committee. Hart, however, would not comment on which way he would vote when the full House takes up the bill.

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who had been one of the biggest opponents of the measure, said, “I know the angst and I know the tension that was in the negotiations.” He complimented the governor’s staff, and actually made the motion to send the bill to the full House.

Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he worries the cap will lull the Legislature into a false sense of security, but he called it a “good compromise.”

“This will demand our best scrutiny, each and every year,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes congratulated House Speaker Bruce Newcomb on the unanimous vote.

“Boy, Speaker, you know how to broker a deal,” Geddes told Newcomb, who responded, “I tell you what – I’m ready to go. How ‘bout you?”

Geddes said, “I agree, it’s time.” However, he said, “I would guess it’ll probably be Thursday before we get all the loose ends tied up.”

The Senate still has major water legislation to debate, and both houses are working on replacement bills for five of the eight House bills that Kempthorne vetoed last week. The other three, according to Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, are “agency bills” and will just be left until next year.

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