Phil Batt, onion farmer who rose to Idaho governor, dies

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican known for signing an agreement with the federal government to remove nuclear waste from his state, died at home on Saturday. He was 96.

In a statement announcing Batt’s death, Gov. Brad Little called him “the epitome of a public servant.”

“His legacy is distinguished by his unrelenting human rights leadership, determined fiscal conservatism, and enduring love of Idaho,” Little said of Batt, who served one term as governor from 1995-1999.

Philip Eugene Batt was born in a small farmhouse several miles from Wilder, a southwest Idaho agricultural town. After graduating from high school there, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. An onion farmer, he entered politics when he was elected to the Idaho statehouse in 1965 and served in the state House of Representatives and state Senate for the next 18 years.

At a 2019 event honoring Batt, Butch Otter, also a former Idaho governor, called him “a rare leader who transcends political ideology.”

As a legislator, Batt pushed to create a state Human Rights Commission, an achievement that became more notable when white supremacist groups made northern Idaho a hotbed of hate group activity in the 1980s and 90s.

Batt also supported laws guaranteeing a minimum wage for farmworkers and, as governor, covering Hispanic farmworkers under Idaho’s workers compensation program; a position that put him at odds with many in the agricultural industry he rose from and which dominates the state landscape.

“He was right, we were wrong,” Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke, a rancher from southern Idaho who Batt once appointed to a land management commission, told the Idaho Statesman.

“A man of fairness and decency, Gov. Batt served our community with a commitment to protect our lands, fight for human rights, and ensure fiscal responsibility,” Bedke said in a statement.

Batt was elected Idaho’s first Republican governor in 28 years in 1994, ushering in a sea change in state politics, preceding three more Republican governors and no Democrats.

His most lasting legacy as governor is a 1995 agreement with the federal government over the planned removal of spent fuel and nuclear waste from Idaho National Laboratory. The presence of environmentally hazardous nuclear waste has been the subject of lawsuits and political debate in Idaho since operations ramped up during the 20th Century. The Laboratory sits atop an aquifer west of Idaho Falls that serves half the state’s population and millions of acres of irrigated farmland.

What became known as the Batt Agreement allowed the Energy Department to temporarily store spent fuel and required it remove waste by 2035, with few exceptions. Though the deal has been changed several times and sparked a recall effort and ballot initiative seeking its repeal, it remains in effect and is now generally seen as preventing Idaho from becoming a high-level nuclear waste dump.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo said in a statement that Batt’s “longstanding friendship and mentorship to me helped guide my professional and personal life.”

“Idaho Governor Phil Batt will be remembered as a strong and thoughtful leader, dedicated to the people of Idaho and advancing human rights in the state,” Crapo said.

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