There are many differences between Idaho's Legislature and Congress, but here are two: Unlike Congress, the Idaho Legislature maintains a balanced budget with no debt. Also, when Idaho legislators disagree, we come together and hammer out a solution.
As the 2013 Legislature started, many of us knew there would be four primary issues that would dominate the session: balancing the budget, personal property tax relief, education reform, and health exchanges. This turned out to be true. Although there was tension at times and the debate was controversial, Idaho legislators showed up for work and addressed each issue head-on. Here is a quick summary of each:
BALANCING THE BUDGET
Once again the Legislature closed the session with a balanced budget. The state budget totaled $2.8 billion, a 3 percent increase over the same appropriations a year ago but at a rate of growth lower than the projected growth in the economy (5.3 percent). K-12 education was the largest line item, accounting for more than 50 percent of the state general fund, and was hotly contested to the end.
Legislators rightfully debated how these monies would be spent, and ultimately decided on an appropriate mix of teacher pay increases, operations funding, and discretionary dollars to school district officials. Also, for the first time a modest provision for the funding of charter school facilities was accommodated.
PERSONAL PROPERTY TAX RELIEF
The longstanding debate regarding personal property taxes resulted with the passage of HB315, which triggers a $100,000 personal property tax exemption and excludes any new equipment that costs $3,000 or less.
Since personal property tax revenue is administered by counties, legislators agreed to backfill county coffers with $20 million in state money. The result is 100 percent personal property tax relief for 90 percent of Idaho businesses - with no tax shift to other taxpayers.
In November 2012, voters overturned sweeping education reform passed by the Legislature in 2011. This put in place a series of discussions and new legislation designed to more accurately reflect the will of the people. The result was much more modest reform: Teachers received an increase in pay but school administrators were given the ability to reduce such pay should financial circumstances dictate. Also, the focus on technology in the classroom was reduced.
In my view this issue is the most important of my legislative lifetime. It establishes Idaho's position regarding state implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare). "Pro" debate generally took the argument that Obamacare is coming to Idaho regardless, and the state needed a federally controlled, state-based health exchange to put Idahoans in the most influential position as possible. "Con" debate generally argued that voluntary compliance placed the state in the role of "subcontractor" to the federal government, and the state was better off to resist any cooperation in the hopes that Obamacare's far-reaching effects could be slowed or stopped via implementation difficulties and/or legal challenges.
The issue was fully vetted with public testimony, expert input and enthusiastic debate. Although I took the "con" position, the majority of my colleagues did not, and Idaho will now embark on a federally controlled, state-based health exchange. Now we will work together to provide the best system possible for all Idahoans.
Many will argue whether or not the decisions of the 2013 Idaho Legislature were wise, but one thing is clear: In Idaho, unlike Washington, D.C., the system is functional and the process works.
In Idaho we make decisions, and partisanship is overridden by the desire to do the best for the people in our state. Now we move forward.
Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, is the Senate's majority caucus chairman.