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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: North Idaho road projects make the cut

Three North Idaho road projects have been selected for funding from state general fund surplus money under a program that lawmakers approved in 2015.

The $54 million available from the surplus will go to 17 road and bridge projects across the state. The three in North Idaho are:

Replacing the Wolf Lodge interchange of Interstate 90 and state Highway 97, a $5.4 million project that will allow larger trucks to travel on I-90 east of Coeur d’Alene.

Restoring and upgrading the pavement condition on 10.2 miles of state Highway 41 near Rathdrum – a route parallel to state Highway 95 that’s used by trucks, tourists, commuters and more – at a cost of $6.25 million.

Redesigning three accident-prone intersections on Highway 41 between state Highway 53 and the junction with U.S. Highway 2. That’s a $1.28 million project.

The Idaho Transportation Department board made its selections based on return on investment in three areas: Safety, mobility and economic opportunity.

Tax cuts ‘just ideas’

The Legislature’s Tax Working Group has wrapped up its work with no definitive outcome.

“At least the members of the committee got an education on some of the history and why tax policy is the way it is,” said Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens. “I think you have to understand the history before you can plot a course for the future. I think the diversity of the committee’s opinions shows why it’s difficult to plot one course forward.”

House Tax Chairman Gary Collins, R-Nampa, said there’s been no decision on four tax-cut bills the group drafted to cut Idaho’s top income tax rate for corporations and top earners by a tenth of a percent; to increase the per-county exemption from the personal property tax on business equipment from the current $100,000 to $150,000 or $250,000; and to remove the sales tax from food while eliminating the current grocery tax exemption.

“They’re just ideas, I would say,” Collins said.

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, said the four drafts could be looked at during the upcoming legislative session.

“There are things that are probably doable in the short term,” Siddoway said. But he said much will depend on the budget and the governor’s priorities.

Siddoway said he remains interested in reviewing all exemptions.

“There’s still a lot of opportunity to come up with some proposals to try to revise our system and make it more fair,” he said. “We’ve been maybe too generous with those exemptions.”

Urban renewal laws

A legislative interim committee examining the state’s urban renewal laws has wrapped up until January after rejecting proposals to impose reporting requirements and penalties and to encourage lawsuits over damages caused by urban renewal. The panel still is considering, but reworking, a proposal to ban the use of urban renewal funds for most public buildings.

It’s not clear yet how that will end, but it likely won’t include a proposed $1 million threshold for the ban, instead looking at other criteria; it may or may not allow such projects with a vote of the people; and it’s an open question whether libraries would be among the forbidden projects. Committee members argued both sides of that question, with several saying libraries spur economic development in their surrounding areas.

“I think everyone who has a computer has a library, and I know I’m working on mine every day,” said Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene. “But public buildings are something that we have to be concerned about.”

Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, said library construction doesn’t take a building off the tax rolls, because libraries already are off the tax rolls. Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, said, “I’m comfortable with the way we’ve defined it right now. I don’t think anybody’s going to talk me into the idea that libraries are a great economic development tool. … But I’m happy to continue to have the conversation as we go through the draft.”

Data system fixes

State lawmakers are praising the state Department of Education, after hearing from its technology director, Chris Campbell, about changes made to a controversial K-12 student data system.

“No questions, just thank you, thank you, thank you,” Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, told Campbell. Batt said she’s heard complaints from local school officials about the system from when she first joined the Legislature.

“You listened, and that just meant the world to them,” she said. “And you went in and actually implemented changes. I can’t thank you enough.”

Lance McCleve, an analyst for the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, echoed Batt’s praise. “It’s very surprising, and it’s wonderful,” he said.

Campbell detailed how the state Department of Education initiated a comprehensive review of the system with the goal of reducing the burden on districts and minimizing the size and frequency of data collection to the minimum necessary. Some of the data points were never used, he reported; others were duplicative or collected too frequently. The refined system now has significantly fewer data elements, and requires half as many uploads from districts a year, along with other changes.

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