Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke offered up what could be an advance forecast for the 2017 legislative session Friday when he told reporters at a briefing that the “creative tension the founders envisioned between the branches of government is alive and well.”
What he meant of course was that the Legislature and Gov. Butch Otter don’t agree on several of the key issues lawmakers will take up when the session opens Monday with Otter’s State of the State address.
The “gang of four” issues in recent years have been transportation spending, taxes, health care and education, which tend to ebb and flow year to year in terms of priority. Health care, which dominated last year, is in limbo; education has enjoyed bipartisan consensus. But what happens with taxes and transportation this year will decide whether 2017 is a short session, as many predict, or carries through March or later.
“Hopefully, we’re not gonna get bogged down into superficial issues,” Otter said Friday.
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That leaves only the major ones.
Otter’s proposed budget won’t include any proposed tax cut, the governor said Friday, but leading Republican lawmakers are thirsting to enact one. Advocates think lowering the tax rate, even by a token amount, is the surest way to attract business to the state.
“I personally embrace tax relief,” Bedke, R-Oakley, said Friday.
As in previous years, though, there is no broad consensus clamoring for lower taxes. Leading businesses and groups would prefer to see the state invest more in job development and training. Without a comprehensive reworking of the state’s overall tax structure, the greatest benefit of shaving a tenth of a point off the top income tax rates is largely one of perception. Advocates would gladly accept that. Eliminating the sales tax on groceries, which sounds like an all-around win, also has a potential downside when measured against other revenue and spending needs.
The session convenes midway through the state’s fiscal year. At last estimate, Idaho could finish the fiscal year in June with revenues exceeding budgeted expenses by perhaps $140 million. That type of windfall is tailor-made to be spent on the type of capital construction involved in road and bridge projects.
Two years ago, the Legislature adopted a temporary funding program dubbed a “surplus eliminator” that diverts a portion of any year-end surplus to road and bridge maintenance. That program ends this year and Otter made clear Friday that he dislikes the budget gimmick, which in practice contributed only a fraction of the money Idaho needs just to forestall further infrastructure deterioration. Otter, who has backed several failed gas tax increases, still wants a dedicated revenue stream, so that users pay for highway construction and maintenance.
“Deferred maintenance is deficit spending,” Otter said.
Bedke outlined three options for those surplus dollars: keep pouring extra surplus into infrastructure; sock it away for a rainy day; or reduce taxes so the state doesn’t run big surpluses.
Lawmakers met through the summer and failed to sort out what to do about health care options for Idaho’s working poor and uninsured. Their recommendation that the Legislature take some unspecified action for the uninsured might wait until the future of Obamacare is settled in Washington.
One school of thought is that if Idaho wants to be in the running to receive future federal funding for health care, the state needs to have some version of Obamacare-created Medicaid expansion, and quick. The opposing argument holds out for doing nothing until the national picture is clearer.
Some Idaho health care proposals are on the table. Sen. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, wants to look at reforming health care for state employees to provide better choice at reduced cost. Other lawmakers say their No. 1 request from constituents is action to reduce health care costs.
What does Otter suggest the Legislature should do?
“Be careful,” he said Friday. There is “great expectation” over what Trump and Republicans will do, but it remains unclear.
“If we get too far out of ahead, we may (not be positioned) to do what the Trump administration is going to do,” Otter said. “We need to know that we’ve got a good, stable funding process for whatever we do.”
Otter on Friday announced a task force on Idaho higher education, modeled on the one he started in 2012 to address K-12 education, and lawmakers on Friday gave the idea bipartisan support. But any recommendations from that group would come later this year, for the 2018 Legislature to address.
The state also faces funding the third and biggest year of a teachers’ salary plan. Otter called the $58 million proposal a “heavy lift” that he was nonetheless committed to, and lawmakers are on board.
Bedke and other lawmakers Friday criticized the state’s inconsistent teacher evaluation system, the weaknesses of which came to light only after a reporter’s public records request. On that issue, Rep. Mat Erpelding of Boise, the Democratic House leader, said Democrats and Republicans are “on the exact same page.”
WHAT’S LEFT: PARTISAN ISSUES, SACRED COWS
As Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill noted Friday, sometimes the biggest session issues are the ones legislators don’t see coming. But some potential newsmakers can be spotted ahead of time.
The results of the November elections have produced a 64th Idaho Legislature with a measurable shift to the right, and that is not lost on leadership. The session is likely to see more conservative measures introduced as the farthest-right bloc of the Republican majority looks to test its strength. Time will tell whether that translates into action on issues beyond conservative favorites such as gun rights, abortion and shrinking government.
A review of legislative agenda websites maintained by both the right and the left show what else might come up. Democratic lawmakers will likely renew calls for a minimum wage bill, extending state civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community, and creating an independent office of Inspector General to oversee and enforce government ethics. That could be driven by a recent whistleblower lawsuit filed by a Department of Labor employee who was dismissed after the department allegedly misused its subpoena power to track the source of anonymous complaints.
The Democrats’ initiatives will likely be introduced as personal bills from lawmakers, which typically don’t have legs — especially when they come from the minority party. Their caucus plans to outline legislative initiatives in a briefing after Otter’s speech Monday.
On the far right, North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott of Blanchard has a “Growing Freedom for Idaho” website outlining legislative priorities around social issues, gun rights, lower taxes and limited government. These range from fairly mainstream proposals such as ending the grocery tax, sunshine law reform and limits on legislative gifts to more extreme measures such as repealing the state health insurance exchange, banning abortion at six weeks, allowing citizens to testify first at legislative hearings, declaring Idaho a “sovereign state” and amending the state’s “Castle Doctrine” to expand self-defense claims for homeowners who shoot intruders.
Scott and House ally Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, outlined the agenda in a news release Friday. Taking aim at the state surplus revenues, they urged taxpayers to press lawmakers on “reducing tax burdens on Idaho workers, families and businesses.”
Governor speaks, Legislature reacts Monday
Gov. Butch Otter gives his State of the State address and outlines his legislative proposals at 1 p.m. Monday. Follow the news and see photos, videos, reaction and analysis through the afternoon at IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM
Otter: Nothing new from Trump transition
Gov. Butch Otter told reporters at a briefing Friday that he would “dearly love” an appointment in Donald Trump’s administration, but that he’d had no recent contact with the transition team. Otter is interested in being secretary of agriculture, among other posts.
He said his interest in working for Trump does not mean he lacks interest in his job or that he is a lame duck. He said the content of his Monday speech will demonstrate that. Said Otter: “I still want to be governor.”