Idaho Politics by William L. Spence: Regretting missed opportunities covering the Legislature

William L Spence, politics reporter, Lewiston TribuneApril 30, 2013 

William L. Spence

I went out for Chinese food the night the Idaho Legislature adjourned, and the message in my fortune cookie said, "Looking for adventure and enjoyment? Take a vacation."

That seemed auspicious, since I was planning to take a few days to go look for birds and unwind after the session. I should have known better.

Crossing the high desert in Oregon, I reached the top of the "Doherty slide." With no guardrail and at least a 1,000-foot dropoff, the road was covered in sheet ice and slush all the way to the bottom. I crawled down in second gear, switching to first a few times when I started sliding. I kept wondering when the enjoyment part of my vacation would begin.

I have similar thoughts every year when the legislative session ends: Why am I here? Where did I go wrong? What do I wish I'd done differently? It's like my whole reporting life flashes before my eyes and I'm left with nothing but a few high notes and too many regrets.

Topping that list this year would be the Medicaid expansion debate.

When Gov. Butch Otter announced in his State of the State address that he was postponing any decision on the expansion until next year, it took the issue off the table. The media in general, and me in particular, stopped asking questions.

That was a mistake.

The governor's working group noted in December that approving the expansion and eliminating Idaho's indigent health care program would save county homeowners and businesses nearly $500 million in the next decade.

There had been previous stories about that, but it wasn't until mid-March that I and other reporters really began questioning why lawmakers could spend an entire session crafting property tax relief for businesses yet couldn't find time to address tax relief for county taxpayers and simultaneously improve health care for more than 100,000 Idahoans.

Had the media highlighted the potential costs of delaying the expansion back in January or February, the Legislature may still have taken a pass on the issue - but it wouldn't have had the convenient excuse of "there's not enough time." Another area that didn't get the attention it deserved was the "de minimis" exclusion in the business personal property tax relief bill.

The bill authorized a $100,000 personal property tax exemption for every company in Idaho, in each county where it does business. The $20 million cost will be covered out of state sales tax dollars.

However, the measure also created a new "de minimis" exclusion for any items costing $3,000 or less that are purchased after Jan. 1, 2013. These purchases will no longer show up on the property tax rolls.

The State Tax Commission doesn't know how much that exclusion will ultimately cost, but the point is, nobody in the media - or the Legislature, that I'm aware of - even bothered to ask.

Why is this important? Because a business that has a $100,000 piece of machinery and another $100,000 in computers, furniture and other small items will eventually get $200,000 in property tax relief. It gets $100,000 immediately for the machinery, plus another $100,000 over time as the smaller items are replaced with new purchases that cost less than $3,000.

And unlike the initial exemption, the cost of the second $100,000 won't be covered by the state. It will shift to other property taxpayers. That didn't come to light during discussion of the bill.

The Medicaid expansion and property tax relief were two slippery slopes where things got away from me. We'll see in another year or so how bad the wreck ends up being.

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bspence@lmtribune.com

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