To summarize where the 2017 Idaho legislative session stood when lawmakers adjourned for the weekend Friday, imagine it’s time to do the weekly food shopping. Your improbable companions? The Idaho Legislature. Yes, take the minivan.
Off you go on this imaginary errand when you hit a bump in the road. Literally. In fact, the road has completely collapsed, a victim of forgone maintenance and a harsh winter. No problem! says the Legislature. Here’s money to fix it. Magically, you’re on your way again.
In the store, you’re in the checkout line when you realize you don’t have enough money. No problem! lawmakers say again. We just ended the sales tax on food.
Sure enough, the cashier rings you up and your tax-free sale goes through. But you’re concerned about how much you’ve got left for the next shopping trip. You check your balance and it’s tight. No problem! says the Legislature. The economy’s booming. You’ll have enough. Probably. We think.
That, allegorically speaking, is where things stand at the close of the session’s 10th and second-to-last week. Entering the home stretch, lawmakers have to decide whether to find more money for road rehab, cut taxes or figure out some combination of both, all without emptying the state’s rainy-day coffers.
That is exactly what the session was predicted to come down to back in January. Now, lawmakers have done their shopping, but somehow, they’ve turned up in the express checkout lane with possibly too many items and not enough money. Let’s sort out their cart.
Aisle 1: Roads, bridges, infrastructure repairs
There are slightly different versions of a big transportation funding effort in both houses and there is consensus on much of the big picture, but not on the details. Without getting into the deep asphalt, lawmakers generally agree on issuing new bonds for road fixes, to be financed with future federal dollars; on extending a law that diverts a portion of year-end surplus to infrastructure; and on prioritizing interstate work in Canyon County to alleviate congestion.
But they don’t agree on other changes that would draw millions in road maintenance dollars from the state’s general fund, as opposed to dedicated highway accounts or revenue from user fees, such as the gasoline tax. Some lawmakers fear that transportation dollars could end up competing down the road — so to speak — with education dollars.
Aisle 2: Tax cuts, income and sales
At the same time legislators contemplate increasing spending for roads, they are looking at decreasing the state’s revenue with a tax cut. Early in the session, that giveback took the form of an income tax cut that quickly passed the House. Things got messy last week when the Senate took up that bill.
Some senators, including President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, proposed a different income tax cut with a smaller hit on revenues. That probably would have been just fine with the House, which will have to concur with any Senate changes to its bill.
But a sizable number of lawmakers in both houses want to end the sales tax on grocery food as well as the tax rebate that goes with it. On the Senate floor Thursday, those upstarts wrested control of the shopping cart, tossed out the income tax cut and grabbed the grocery tax cut off the shelf instead. And they did it even though Gov. Butch Otter all but promised to veto the move.
Cleanup on Aisle 2!
Comparing shopping lists, and wallets
The reason the governor and others oppose the grocery tax repeal is the effect on revenue, not to mention that something as significant as a major sales tax revision shouldn’t be done as a late-session bill hijacking. The measure comes before the Senate for a final vote Monday. If it passes, it goes to the House, where leadership still wants to cut income taxes, not the food tax.
Apart from that, though — and this is the bigger issue — the question is how much the Legislature can additionally spend, by way of road and bridge fixes, and additionally give back, by way of tax cuts, while not running through every saved cent the state has. Most lawmakers want to approve a budget that leaves the state $50 million in the black at the end of the year. The various options out there leave $40 million or less.
“That would be irresponsible, for us to leave such a small amount on the bottom line — that if everything didn’t turn out just the way we wanted, we would be really hurting,” Hill said Friday.
The disagreement could extend the session beyond its hoped-for March 24 adjournment. What happens with the tax cut bill in the Senate on Monday will be telling.
“We’ll scare you how fast things can move when consensus is reached, but obviously we don’t have consensus, and so we’re going to search for that,” House Speaker Scott Bedke said.
Other items in the cart, or left on the shelf
Idaho National Lab: A move authorizing the state Board of Education and the Idaho State Building Authority to finance the $90 million construction of a cybersecurity research facility and an advanced supercomputer center at INL in Idaho Falls. Passed the Senate, awaits action in the House; likely to pass.
Health care: Two proposals providing scaled-back state funding to subsidize health care for a portion of Idaho’s uninsured. One, introduced Friday, goes farther, proposing a reorganization of statewide primary care services and incentives to add and keep doctors in Idaho. Likely to remain a “discussion point” this session, with action unlikely.
Faith-healing exemptions: Two measures introduced last week, neither of which addresses the state’s religious exemptions in cases of possible criminal medical neglect in the case of a child’s death. One makes civil law changes to facilitate judicial action and intervention in faith-healing cases. The other would make courts consider alternative forms of treatment, including prayer, when deciding whether to order emergency medical care for a child. Chances for action are unclear.