BOISE — It’s unknown how changes at the federal level and a new Trump administration will affect state level decisions.
But as lawmakers assemble in Boise for the 2017 legislative session, which begins Monday, several agendas are gaining early momentum.
With an estimated revenue surplus now at $139 million, several ideas and initiatives will compete for money in the coming year. These include tax cut proposals — which have died the past two years in the Legislature — and extra funding for teacher salary increases — the biggest number yet at $58 million.
“It seems that typically, right after the election that’s when legislative policy gets the most aggressive because there aren’t any concerns for getting home to campaign,” said Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom. “I think this year will be concentrated on making sure the commitments to education are made whole. And I think we will see significant efforts with regard to some kind of tax cut.”
Idaho is now in its third year of a five-year plan in in regards to education. On Friday, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter hinted at some of his priorities for the 2017 session.
Though he traditionally discusses budget and policy plans in his State of the State speech, also on Monday, he said education will be his primary focus of the new session.
Otter said Friday that a new 28-member task force will be made up of a wide variety of representatives to study options that could result in changes to postsecondary access and completion. Further, the Idaho Legislature may be asked to take up legislation in future legislative sessions.
“The task force initiative will be to do very much the same thing as we did K-12,” Otter said at the annual legislative preview hosted by The Associated Press. “Where are we anemic? Where do we need to have more purpose?”
Guthrie said there has been talk about the evaluation process and if it’s been effective.
“From the education people I’ve talked to, I think the efforts are appreciated — I just think there’s always room to do better,” Guthrie said. “To a certain extent what we are doing is working but there is still work to do.”
A concern for Guthrie, however, is the rising costs in deferred maintenance plaguing several, if not all, colleges and universities across the state.
Idaho State University, for example, has more than $300 million in deferred maintenance. And it just recently asked the Permanent Building Fund Advisory Council for $10 million to put toward repairs and replacements to the Gale Life Science Building’s infrastructure.
“We have to be careful about diversifying our education portfolio too much,” Guthrie said. “As a legislator, we will visit universities, and they will talk about the decades of deferred maintenance.”
He continued, “What that tells me is that we’re not really taking care of the facilities that we have. And yet we continue to build new. I just think there’s a line there where we have to be careful and strike a balance with.”
Guthrie supports career technical education and funding the career ladder, saying those investments have the opportunity for the largest returns once the educated person enters the workforce.
Rep. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, said that out of the three universities, ISU does, however, need a little more focus and attention.
“And I know the people in Southeast Idaho are certainly trying to make that happen,” Armstrong said. “I went and visited the University of Idaho and those guys are not lacking for funds. Spare no expense at that place. And Boise State University is right here in the capitol so they’re taken care of.”
Another agenda surfacing in light of the new session is the Growing Freedom for Idaho project spearheaded by Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, and Rep. Heather Scott, a North Idaho lawmaker and Blanchard Republican.
The 2017 Growing Freedom for Idaho agenda currently includes more than 60 bills arranged by categories important to liberty. Categories include lower taxes, less government, more freedom and more transparency.
Scott and Nate toured East Idaho late last year to educate voters about what they believe is massive under-representation by their fellow lawmakers.
Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, said she takes exception to these trips.
“What gives two legislators the right to decide whether or not the rest of the legislative body is conservative or not?” she said. “And whether or not their votes on certain bills were the right votes or not. They represent their districts, which are totally different than mine, and I was the one elected to represent it. They shouldn’t be able to tell me if my vote is right. My vote is mine.”
Though Rep. Dustin W. Manwaring, R-Pocatello, has never personally encountered a legislative session because he was newly elected this past November, he is familiar with Nate and Scott and their reputations at the statehouse.
“They’re pretty aggressive,” he said. “They have their agenda and I’ve seen them be at odds against several types of people at the Statehouse. My goal is to not play favorites or work toward what they want or don’t want, but to do what I think I’m doing, which is represent the people of Pocatello the best I can.”
Packer said she has three personal bills she would like to see passed and introduced as law in 2017, including a sign language interpreter licensing bill, which was vetoed by the governor last session, and a cyber security bill, which would allow parents to voluntarily sign up to have their children’s email and cellphone accounts protected from unwanted spam sent by tobacco, marijuana and other unwanted organizations.
And her final bill would support, introduce and fund dispatcher training for 911 dispatch officers.
“They are our first responders,” she said. “It shocked me to learn about this a few years ago, to learn they had no training with how to deal with those highly charged emotional circumstances or how to decompress after dealing with a number of those calls.”
Armstrong said it’s his plan to sit back and learn how to do it before launching into anything big. He said he does think there’s definitely going to be some focus on tax relief; however, nobody really knows what form that’s going to be in.
“It could come in the form of business, personal income or property taxes relief,” he said. “There’s a surplus in the budget, and if there’s no reason to collect that much money if you don’t need that much to run effectively.”
This article was originally published in the Idaho State Journal. It is used here with permission.
Adam Forsgren, EastIdahoNews.com Columnist