Phil Bett, the onion farmer who became governor of Idaho, has died

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

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

“His legacy stands out for his relentless leadership on human rights, strong fiscal conservatism and enduring love for Idaho,” Little said of Bath, who served as governor from 1995-1999.

Philip Eugene Butt was born in a small farmhouse a few miles from Wilder, a farming town in southwestern Idaho. After graduating from high school there, he served in the US Army during World War II. While growing onions, he entered politics when he was elected to the Idaho State House in 1965 and served in the state House of Representatives and state Senate for the next 18 years.

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

As a legislator, Butt pushed for the creation of a state Human Rights Commission, an achievement that became more visible when white supremacist groups turned northern Idaho into a hotbed of hate group activity in the 1980s and ’90s.

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

“He was right, we were wrong,” said Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke, a southern Idaho rancher whom Butt once appointed to the land management commission.

“A fair and decent man, Governor Bath has served our community with a commitment to protect our lands, fight for human rights and ensure fiscal accountability,” Bedke said in a statement.

In 1994, Bett was elected Idaho’s first Republican governor in 28 years, ushering in a major shift in state politics.

His most enduring legacy as governor is a 1995 agreement with the federal government on the planned removal of spent fuel and nuclear waste from the Idaho National Laboratory. The presence of environmentally hazardous nuclear waste has been the subject of litigation and political debate in Idaho since its activities began to build up in the 20th century. The lab 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 Butte Agreement allowed the Department of Energy to temporarily store spent fuel and required the waste to be removed by 2035, with few exceptions. Although the agreement has been amended several times and has prompted recall efforts and initiatives to repeal it, it remains in effect and is now generally seen as preventing Idaho from becoming a high-level nuclear waste dump.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapa said in a statement that Bath’s “longtime friendship and mentorship has helped guide my professional and personal life.”

“Idaho Governor Phil Bett will be remembered as a strong and thoughtful leader committed to the people of Idaho and the advancement of human rights in the state,” Crapa said.

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