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Down in the Dirk

2005's veto-machine is 2006's lone wolf

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Nobody ever said it isn't lonely at the top. But you could almost pity Gov. Dirk Kempthorne last week as he watched several of his initiatives crumble in the hallways of the Idaho Legislature.

Handing out a $50 check to every Idahoan? Sorry. Lost in the budget-setting of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. "As soon as you approve the legislation, I'll sign it and within 14 days the first checks will be on their way," Kempthorne said to lawmakers in his State of the State speech. The crickets you heard chirping that night were been foreshadowing something.

"That died as soon as it left his lips," said Sen. Elliot Werk (D-Boise).

Buying the property around the donated Simplot mansion for $2 million? Forget about it. Never came up.

The governor's parks plan, known as "Experience Idaho," also seems in jeopardy, as does the multimillion-dollar vision he had for the roads plan known as "Connecting Idaho." The latter plan, which has weeks to go before it becomes final, is unlikely to reach every corner of Kempthorne's dream map. Likewise, although budget writers set up some funds for repair and maintenance of parks, the final budget numbers could be well short of the $34 million vision Kempthorne laid out in January.

"My guess is he'll probably be disappointed," said JFAC co-chairman Sen. Dean Cameron (R-Rupert).

As for Connecting Idaho, Kempthorne publicly fretted that it was turning into "Dividing Idaho," and he's not far off. Late last week, Cameron stewed in his office refusing to see an official from the Idaho Transportation Board because he was, he said, "furious with them."

With the session likely to close by the end of this month, and with legislative leaders drawing up their to-do lists for the remainder, Kempthorne seems frozen out.

"This is a person who might be better remembered by his actions as mayor and senator than as governor," said Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby on Public Television's Idaho Reports last Friday.

"I've felt sorry for him," said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet (D-Ketchum).

That's unlikely balm to the soul of a Republican sparring with his own party and now fighting perceptions of ineffectiveness. How did he get here? Part of the problem, Kempthorne acknowledged, is predictable.

"Find me a year, in any state, when there isn't this image of strained relationships between the executive and the Legislature," he said at an Idaho Press Club luncheon last week. "That, to some extent, goes with the territory."

But in a typical year, a governor can also be expected to work with legislative allies before a session, to brief them on initiatives and get them on board. Sometimes Kempthorne does so. Not this year.

"Some years, we don't have that much of a heads-up until the first day of the session," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis. "This year was one of the years where there was not a lot of advance prep between the governor and the Legislature."

The tension between Kempthorne and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb is apparent to any Statehouse observer. When announcing his retirement, Newcomb made it clear he was ready for a good fight. That fight could be over Kempthorne's cherished highway plan.

So when Kempthorne spoke to reporters last week, he came ready to make a few signals to lawmakers. With tongue in cheek, he said he was there to provide a "mid-session" review of accomplishments. And he coyly dodged questions about wielding a heavy veto stamp (as he did when lawmakers derailed last year's road-bond proposals) or other revenge against lawmakers, saying "I don't know those terms."

But he isn't ready to offer any olive branches, either. With Newcomb following Democrats with his own proposed two-year moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, Kempthorne declined to give any signal about whether or not he would sign or veto the popular proposal now working through the Statehouse.

Of course, it's not all been bumpy roads. Kempthorne's hoped-for salary increases for teachers and state workers are on his desk for a signature, as is money for drug treatment in prisons. And the session isn't over yet.

"We've got a couple of weeks to get a couple of significant things through," Davis said. Still, he's not expecting to be at the Statehouse any longer than March 24, which offers scant time for deal-making.

Fate may yet intervene for Kempthorne. For the first time in many months, political observers are speculating about his future, but not because of anything he's said.

Instead, the buzz began because Gale Norton, the "James-Watt-in-a-skirt" Secretary of the Interior, announced her resignation. Immediately, Kempthorne's name was on the lips of Washington lobbyists and bloggers as a possible replacement. It wouldn't be the first time Kempthorne was short-listed for Bush's cabinet. But after getting famously brushed aside for the job of Environmental Protection Agency administrator, those rumors subsided.

But if he wants the job, he may regret the statements he made earlier this month about the Bush Administration's handling of National Guard funding. Kempthorne took the podium in Washington along with several other governors to criticize the administration's plans for keeping states "out of the loop" on guard decisions. "You cannot wait for the federal government to come in and help," Kempthorne later said in Idaho, when talking about disaster preparedness.

Kempthorne might welcome some federal assistance now, to burnish his reputation as he nears the end of a mixed tenure as governor. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Kempthorne rambled through a few platitudes about the Guard, education, and the outdoors. Then, he looked wistfully at the ceiling and said, of himself, "He did a pretty decent job."

Politicians aren't known for humility. But it was surprising to hear Kempthorne damn himself with such faint praise.