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Eye on Boise: Aging state equipment enters ‘duct tape’ stage

BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter’s state budget recommendation calls for zero funding for capital replacement items, but lawmakers are concerned that some equipment replacement needs are too critical to continue to overlook.

“I worry about this infrastructure,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I feel responsible for letting everything fall apart.”

Examples: Roofs and HVAC systems need replacing at state agricultural research stations where researchers are working on seeds. Idaho Public TV workers must climb a 350-foot tower on an 8,000-foot mountaintop every year to replace a special lightbulb, because the agency can’t afford to switch to a fluorescent bulb that would last 10 years. The Idaho State School for the Deaf and Blind needs a school bus with a wheelchair lift that’ll cost $65,000. None of those was included in the governor’s proposed budget for next year.

Bell and other committee members have been working on a plan to address a limited number of capital replacement items in next year’s budget, though far fewer than agencies say are needed. Bell said the target is no more than $5 million statewide, in all agencies. As a result, budgets set by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee last week for Agricultural Research and Extension, Idaho Public Television and Professional-Technical Education all included small amounts to replace the most critical items – including the tower light bulbs for IPTV.

“We have really kept them so short on maintenance and equipment,” Bell said. “When the wheels fall off, I feel somebody’s responsible, and it’s us.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, “I think we’re at the duct tape and baling wire stage on many of those replacement items. I think we need to put that right up at the top of our priorities.”

IPTV’s critical replacement item list totaled $1.5 million; JFAC approved $189,600. Ag Research and Extension identified more than $1 million in needs; it got $325,000. In the Professional-Technical Education budget, the state’s six technical colleges will get $65,000 each to replace instructional equipment. All three votes were unanimous, 20-0.

The request for the school bus for the School for the Deaf and Blind won’t come up until the public school budget is considered on March 5; numerous other agencies also have pending requests for equipment replacement.

Ease asbestos claims?

Legislation designed to relieve Pennsylvania-based Crown Holdings from liability for millions in old asbestos claims has passed the House on a 47-22 vote, after much debate. The asbestos bill got strong opposition, including from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, who said it would violate the Idaho Constitution’s ban on local or special legislation. He said while 14 states have passed the legislation proposed by Crown Holdings, “Eleven have not passed the legislation – in fact, four of them have rejected it twice.”

The bill’s House floor sponsor, Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said HB 376 doesn’t name the company. “I think Idaho is business-friendly and has to have this message sent to its business community,” he said. The bill, which the American Legislative Exchange Council drafted with Crown and has been proposing state by state, now moves to a Senate committee.

‘Rein in urban renewal’

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, is pushing HB 506 to further limit urban renewal, by removing any authority for eminent domain or condemnation, and by removing urban renewal agencies’ power to enter and inspect properties within their projects. “We think it’s time to maybe rein in urban renewal a little bit,” Nonini told the House, which voted 47-18 in favor of the bill; it now moves to a Senate committee.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, argued against the measure, noting that legislation passed last year already strictly limits when urban renewal agencies can use the power of eminent domain. He said when he served on an urban renewal board in McCall, “We needed it at times” for “pieces of land that were clearly blighted and deteriorated.”

Killen said, “You’re limiting the local governments unnecessarily.”

Nonini said an attorney for urban renewal agencies who testified against the bill in an earlier committee hearing said he’d never seen condemnation power used by an urban renewal agency in 30 years but that it’d been a “good threat tool.”

“I mean, c’mon, people, is that any way to treat our people?” Nonini asked.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, “They just got a little too big for their britches in some areas,” and urged support for the bill. Of urban renewal, she said, “It’s been nothing but a pain in the behind.”

Reporter Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at or (208) 336-2854.