Idaho lawmakers are returning to the Capitol. Here are 5 key issues for this session
Ryan Suppe, Idaho Statesman
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Coming off the longest session in state history in 2021, and less than two months after officially adjourning, the Idaho Legislature is poised to assemble again Monday — with a $1.6 billion state surplus, and how to spend it, at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds.
The record surplus is thanks to a nearly $900 million fund balance carryover from budget year 2021, which ended June 30, along with higher than projected revenues from sales, income and business taxes last year. That’s on top of billions in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding that continues to flow into the state.
Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, this year will co-chair the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for writing the state’s checks.
“While I don’t agree with how we’re getting these federal dollars or actually where they’re coming from, as in borrowed money, that isn’t the question,” Agenbroad told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “It’s up to us to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and invest wisely. That’s what I look to do, not only with our surplus dollars but also with our federal dollars that we’re receiving.”
Republican and Democrat legislators generally agree on those areas: infrastructure, education and some form of tax relief.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, compared the upcoming appropriation process to managing a family budget.
“If you come into some unexpected money, what are you going to do? You’re going to pay off some debts. You’re going to invest in those things that are going to make your life easier down the road, financially,” Bedke said by phone.
Where the two parties diverge is on specific investments as well as their framing the surplus. GOP legislators insist the money should be used on one-time expenditures, such as infrastructure projects to update the state’s out-of-date bridges and roads.
Democrats argue the surplus is also tied to excessive revenues — the result of under-funding state-controlled agencies. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she’s “not buying into the language of the surplus.”
“When you don’t pay your mortgage and you don’t pay your utility bills, you may have a lot of money in the bank, but you shouldn’t call it a surplus,” Rubel said by phone. “We have cash on hand, you may say, by virtue of not funding our schools, not funding our universities, not funding our roads and bridges, not funding our emergency services.”
LEGISLATORS LOOK TO FUND FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN
Expect a rekindling of the long-running debate over whether to fund full-day kindergarten. The state currently only funds half-day kindergarten.
School districts with all-day programs fund them using supplemental property taxes, federal money or by charging tuition. The State Board of Education last year recommended the state fund full-day programs, after 2021 legislation to do that failed. The bill, HB 331, estimated the cost to implement full-day kindergarten in 2022 at $42 million.
Full-day kindergarten has bipartisan support, and some lawmakers are optimistic about it passing this year. Rubel said it’s “way, way overdue.”
Agenbroad said he believes support will be there this session.
“There’s certainly those that will be against that for various reasons,” he said. “You take nothing for granted, and until we actually see the legislation, it’s hard to say — but I believe there’s enough support.”
GOP lawmakers also expect legislation to invest in literacy programs for students as well as teacher salaries and professional development.
EXPECT PARTISAN INCOME TAX CUTS DEBATE
GOP lawmakers are again planning income tax cuts, after approving nearly $400 million in tax relief in 2021. This year could see another $400 million in relief, including a $200 million income tax cut, or a dip in the rate from 6.5% to 6%, for the top tax bracket, the Associated Press reported.
Democrats, on the other hand, are advocating for property tax relief. Rubel said she finds the newly proposed income tax cut “deeply frustrating.”
“Every time we have two dimes to rub together all they want to do is a tax cut for the wealthy,” Rubel said. “There are many ways that we can help those on fixed incomes and those that are really struggling with property taxes.”
Bedke disagreed. He argued it’s not wise to use a one-time revenue surplus to provide property tax relief, because it’s a short-term solution.
“It doesn’t fix anything,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said property tax relief could help alleviate rising housing costs.
“That is dire in most of areas and in my area here, particularly, there’s no inventory and it’s ridiculously expensive, so services providers, teachers, health care providers, people who serve the community … don’t have a place to live,” Stennett said by phone.
Another mechanism to alleviate housing costs is the Idaho Housing Trust Fund, which the Legislature established in 1992. The fund has never been used, but there’s growing interest among legislators to allocate money to the trust and use it to help local governments and affordable housing developers finance projects.
“I think we can craft a program that will fit their need,” Agenbroad said. “And the reason I’m confident we can do that is because we’ve asked (developers), ‘What are the programs that would be most beneficial to Idaho?’”
LAWMAKERS EXPLORE INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENTS
Legislators are looking at ways to improve Idaho’s infrastructure, whether by allocating state funding to local agencies and the Idaho Transportation Department to improve roads and bridges, or by directing federal funds earmarked for natural resources and internet broadband.
Last year, House Bill 362 redirected a larger share of sales tax revenues to road and other transportation projects, adding $80 million to the state’s 2022 transportation appropriation and bringing the total to $853 million. The bill also allowed the state to bond for up to $1.6 billion over 20 years to fund transportation infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, the 2021 federal infrastructure package, which President Joe Biden signed into law, guarantees Idaho more than $2.5 billion over the next five years to fund a variety of infrastructure improvements, including for broadband and water systems.
Bridges across the state are nearing or have surpassed their useful lifespans, and rapid population growth is further straining “antiquated systems,” Stennett said. The state shouldn’t wait “until the bridge collapses or your water sewer system doesn’t work,” she said.
“These are public health and safety issues, and I think that is the role of government,” Stennett said.
Additionally, federal funds could help improve natural resource management, including water quality and quantity, following a historic year of drought in Idaho and throughout the West. In particular, the Snake and Boise river systems could be targeted for investment, Bedke said.
“There will be a desire to make an investment in water infrastructure of all types,” he said.
MAY PRIMARY ELECTION TO INFLUENCE POLITICS
All the while, one thing could alter the tone and tenor of the session. It’s an election year, and primaries are scheduled for May.
Lawmakers say election years usually produce shorter, more efficient legislative sessions because elected officials running for office want to return home and focus on campaigns.
“There is nothing that makes a legislator more homesick than to have someone back home file” for election, Bedke said.
An added distraction is redistricting, a process to redraw legislative and congressional districts following the 2020 census. Idaho’s redistricting commission released new maps late last year, but they’re now being challenged in court.
On Jan. 14, the Idaho Supreme Court will consider whether the maps pass legal muster. In the meantime, legislators aren’t assured which district they will be representing in the upcoming election.
There’s also the question of whether the House and Senate will be able to cooperate to pass bills this session. When the Legislature reconvened in November for a three-day session, the House introduced 29 bills that never saw the light of the full Senate.
Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said that was due to the shortened time period.
“There just wasn’t time for good public discussion and input,” Winder said by phone. Overall last year, the Legislature passed a smaller percentage of bills than during any session this decade, the Statesman recently reported.
MORE BILLS TO FIGHT COVID-19 VACCINE MANDATES
Winder said he expects the process to return to normal this session. That means full hearings, with plenty of opportunity for the public to testify, Winder said.
The more than 30 bills introduced during the November session largely targeted federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Lawmakers expect those bill sponsors to take another crack at passing legislation that blocks the federal government or employers from requiring vaccines.
Those bills would likely meet resistance, however. While many GOP lawmakers, as well as Republican Gov. Brad Little, have called the federal mandates an overreach, they’re divided over whether the Legislature should interfere.
“Medical decisions of all kinds need to be made between you and your medical provider,” Bedke said. “And government, really, has no place in that conversation.”