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Columns
COMMUNITY COLUMNIST
Brugger: Potholes and politics

I won’t lie to you. I’ve escaped to Hawaii. Before I left, however, my Buick had a close encounter with a pothole, blew out a tire sidewall, and was soon sporting a new tire. This, of course, on a day I had other things to do. Potholes are on my mind. My first experience with politics was when I was a young high school student in Denver. I decided to help in the mayor’s race and had a great time preparing envelopes to be sent out to voters. The biggest issue of that campaign? Potholes. Yes, the failure of the incumbent to successfully combat the deterioration of Denver’s streets propelled my candidate to victory! Infrastructure and, in this case, roads, are one thing that everyone believes government is responsible for. It is also one thing that every voter is sure taxes go toward. The difficult thing for politicians is that when infrastructure breaks down at a more rapid pace than usual, money has not been set aside and there is, in legislative circles, what is calmly called a “budget shortfall.” In the neighborhoods and on the highways, however, no one is calmly talking about it at all. They are using language reserved for the direst of circumstances. Highway maintenance is a safety issue. It is an economic issue. We have been handed a disaster this winter in Idaho, and we already had a large highway maintenance deficit. Every legislative session I’ve seen since moving here has included discussion but no absolute resolution on how to finance the infrastructure Idaho needs to remain current on transportation needs. During a recent legislative briefing I attended, there was talk of a 5-cent gas tax hike, which would be lifted if the price of gas without the tax reached $3 a gallon. There was also talk of taking it out of the surplus or reducing the budget for other programs. Since the education budget was not going to be as large as the Republican superintendent asked for, I doubt there will be much of a surplus or room in other budgets. “Do we have any idea how much damage has been done and how much money will fix it?” I asked. “ No,” was the answer. I was left wondering just how the pothole problems were going to be fixed while the legislators were set to spend their weekend at home touring the damage. I know that our Legislature is loath to address the issue of raising taxes; but since money will be spent, unless we want Idaho to begin to look like a third-world country, it may be a lot of money. The Legislature, however, starts every session with at least one bill to lower taxes. The problem as I see it is that if an inadequate amount of money is raised, Idahoans will be complaining that their taxes are being wasted because their most cherished project is not funded. If you add to the current disaster the very real problem of the deferred maintenance that has been apparent for several years, you can imagine how inept state and local governments may seem. My heartfelt suggestion is to wait until a comprehensive survey is in place, probably after the thaw. Realistic budgets should be developed, and a special legislative session should be called to deal with the way it should be paid for. The real hard costs should be known and fully addressed. They should be fully funded. The taxes do not all have to be permanent, but they should be raised to get the job done. Too often, failure to fund government programs is leading to a view that government can’t be trusted to provide those things that have been passed as legislation. Then there are more calls to give the government less money to “waste.” We simply must begin to think of meeting public demand for adequate government instead of always thinking that the only reason for people will want to live in Idaho is that we have low taxes. If we have potholes and washed out bridges, people will not want to live here regardless of their tax liability.

I won’t lie to you. I’ve escaped to Hawaii. Before I left, however, my Buick had a close encounter with a pothole, blew out a tire sidewall, and was soon sporting a new tire. This, of course, on a day I had other things to do. Potholes are on my mind.

My first experience with politics was when I was a young high school student in Denver. I decided to help in the mayor’s race and had a great time preparing envelopes to be sent out to voters. The biggest issue of that campaign? Potholes. Yes, the failure of the incumbent to successfully combat the deterioration of Denver’s streets propelled my candidate to victory!

Infrastructure and, in this case, roads, are one thing that everyone believes government is responsible for. It is also one thing that every voter is sure taxes go toward. The difficult thing for politicians is that when infrastructure breaks down at a more rapid pace than usual, money has not been set aside and there is, in legislative circles, what is calmly called a “budget shortfall.” In the neighborhoods and on the highways, however, no one is calmly talking about it at all. They are using language reserved for the direst of circumstances.

Highway maintenance is a safety issue. It is an economic issue. We have been handed a disaster this winter in Idaho, and we already had a large highway maintenance deficit. Every legislative session I’ve seen since moving here has included discussion but no absolute resolution on how to finance the infrastructure Idaho needs to remain current on transportation needs.

During a recent legislative briefing I attended, there was talk of a 5-cent gas tax hike, which would be lifted if the price of gas without the tax reached $3 a gallon. There was also talk of taking it out of the surplus or reducing the budget for other programs. Since the education budget was not going to be as large as the Republican superintendent asked for, I doubt there will be much of a surplus or room in other budgets.

“Do we have any idea how much damage has been done and how much money will fix it?” I asked. “ No,” was the answer. I was left wondering just how the pothole problems were going to be fixed while the legislators were set to spend their weekend at home touring the damage.

I know that our Legislature is loath to address the issue of raising taxes; but since money will be spent, unless we want Idaho to begin to look like a third-world country, it may be a lot of money. The Legislature, however, starts every session with at least one bill to lower taxes.

The problem as I see it is that if an inadequate amount of money is raised, Idahoans will be complaining that their taxes are being wasted because their most cherished project is not funded. If you add to the current disaster the very real problem of the deferred maintenance that has been apparent for several years, you can imagine how inept state and local governments may seem.

My heartfelt suggestion is to wait until a comprehensive survey is in place, probably after the thaw. Realistic budgets should be developed, and a special legislative session should be called to deal with the way it should be paid for. The real hard costs should be known and fully addressed. They should be fully funded. The taxes do not all have to be permanent, but they should be raised to get the job done.

Too often, failure to fund government programs is leading to a view that government can’t be trusted to provide those things that have been passed as legislation. Then there are more calls to give the government less money to “waste.” We simply must begin to think of meeting public demand for adequate government instead of always thinking that the only reason for people will want to live in Idaho is that we have low taxes. If we have potholes and washed out bridges, people will not want to live here regardless of their tax liability.


Mailbag
Letter: There's no babysitting in schools

In response to Mr. Nelson's letter to the editor (Feb. 20):

I would urge you, Mr. Nelson, to visit Valley School to observe the "babysitting" done by the teachers here. Perhaps you might even want to instruct a lesson or two. My students in 12th grade Civics and English have read your letter and are awaiting your visit. Please feel free to contact me at 208-829-5353.

Jennifer Ostyn, teacher

Valley High School


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: Don't use my name but here's a scoop: Trump loves leaks (some of them)

President Donald Trump and his aides despise and condemn anonymous leaks to reporters.

Except, of course, when they are the ones doing the leaking.

On the”Fox & Friends” program Tuesday on Fox News, the president blamed President Barack Obama (& friends) for recent leaks, which Trump called “really serious because they are very bad in terms of national security.”

Sounds serious, doesn’t it? But just offstage, quite the contrary.

- Highlights of Tuesday night’s address to Congress were anonymously provided to the conspiracy-mongering Infowars site. (The “story”—excellent stenography!—includes this bizarre disclaimer: “It should be noted this was not a leak, but was given directly to Infowars.”)

- Last weekend, the White House enlisted two unnamed sources—“a senior intelligence officer in the Trump administration” and “a senior member of the intelligence community”—to talk to reporters, as part of an effort to knock down a New York Times story about Trump associates’ contact with Russia.

- And White House “background” briefings continue as always, meaning that White House officials are—by design—quoted in news stories as anonymous sources.

The result, especially for the average news consumer, is mind-spinning.

In this fun house, a president who, during the campaign, proclaimed “I love WikiLeaks!” because that organization’s leaks were causing political damage to his opponent, now bemoans the dangers of leaks that cause political damage to him.

Journalists “shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Strange-but-true sentences in news stories point out the contradictions.

“Two of those officials spoke on the condition of anonymity—a practice President Trump has condemned,” wrote Greg Miller and Adam Entous of The Washington Post in the Russia story mentioned earlier.

And in the Associated Press (about an executive order on environmental regulations): “The official briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, despite the president’s recent complaints about unnamed sources.”

Of course, not all leaks are created equal.

There are true leaks, like the partial Trump tax return sent anonymously in the U.S. mail to a New York Times reporter during the campaign.

As Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept wrote recently, some of these can be both serious crimes and wholly justified. In the Flynn case, “the leaks revealed that a high government official blatantly lied to the public about a material matter—his conversations with Russian diplomats—and the public has the absolute right to know this.”

Then there are leaks that are really plants from government sources (sound familiar, Infowars?) and, third, an in-between category that Columbia University law professor David Pozen calls “pleaks.” These may emerge in dogged reporting from confidential sources.

It’s hardly new that American presidents both decry leaks and use them.

But in the extremes of behavior on one side and rhetoric on the other, Trump may be setting a new standard for trying to have it both ways.


Editorial
featured
Our View: It’s Jekyll and Hyde in the Legislature

The media have made plenty of hay with this year’s legislative session, and you can’t really blame us. The session got off to an unusual start when the conservative governor proposed sweeping spending increases not exactly palatable to the conservative Legislature.

Then things really got weird when Rep. Heather Scott, a Republican from Blanchard, was temporarily stripped of her committees by suggesting that female legislators advance to leadership positions by performing sexual favors.

In the latest twist, a former committee secretary accused Speaker Scott Bedke of making lewd remarks in a committee years ago. Reporters and police have all but debunked the claims, seized upon by the state’s alt-right to attack Idaho’s Republican establishment.

And we haven’t even begun to discuss actual legislation – zany pitches like stripping funding from sanctuary cities (even though the state has none), removing references to climate change from classrooms (it’s real, folks, and probably caused by humans), and taking away local control for setting early voting windows (even though almost nobody in the state cares when people vote from one county to the next). On Thursday, led by Scott, the House killed a routine bill to allow FBI background checks for some state employees — putting almost $14 million in federal funding for the state Labor Department in jeopardy — because, well, Idaho really doesn’t like the federal government.

More quietly, though, lawmakers are still going about the business of making actual improvements to the state. For every crazy proposal, there’s at least one good idea making progress this session.

Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

A few of the good bills making headway in just the past week:

Heroin dealers: A bipartisan bill would allow prosecutors to charge heroin dealers with murder when their clients overdose. Heroin use is on the rise in Idaho, partly because people addicted to prescription pain medicine sometimes turn to the black market to fuel their addictions. The bill would send a strong message to dealers that heroin has no place in the Gem State.

Civil asset forfeiture: Another bill would make it harder for police to seize your cash and cars and other goods when you’re suspected of a drug crime. We advocated for these changes after a special Times-News report last year showed potential for police abuse under the state’s current laws.

Rape kit retention: More strong journalism, this time from the Idaho Press-Tribune, is helping gain support for a bill that would require the state to retain evidence gathered from rape kits. Holding onto evidence longer will help more victims find justice.

Contract reform: Several bills are working their way through the House that would reform how the state awards and manages contracts. They stem from the broadband education scandal of two years ago that sparked accusations of corruption.

Education budget: The Legislature’s budget committee this week approved many of the spending increases proposed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and state Superintendent Sherri Ybarra. Lawmakers plan to boost the state’s education budget by 6.3 percent, including $62 million in more teacher pay.

The Legislature tends to make more progress and see fewer bubbleheaded bills in non-election years like this one. But you can’t exactly call this session the most productive, partly because the state is taking a wait-and-see approach to a lot of the biggest issues as the Trump administration sets its course.

When lawmakers aren’t grappling with the big issues, they fill their time chasing the foolish ones.

But we’re optimists. There’s still a month left before the Legislature adjourns for the year. To salvage this session, lawmakers will have to spend much more time on the bills that really matter and a whole lot less on their follies.


PAT SUTPHIN, TIMES-NEWS  

Operator A.J. Schroeder uses the patch truck to fill a pothole Wednesday on Canyon Rim Road in Twin Falls.