State Politics

Even in good time, Idaho’s lawmakers still watch the wallet

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, left, could wind up standing in the way of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to provide preventive health care to poor people.
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, left, could wind up standing in the way of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to provide preventive health care to poor people. Statesman file

Farmers, ranchers and others in the business of agriculture like to say it’s not the bad years that get you, it’s the good years. That’s when optimism buoyed by flush times can mean overreach, and possible disaster if conditions suddenly worsen.

Idaho, being an agricultural state, takes this to heart, and so does its citizen Legislature with deep farm roots. Which is to say that even when the economic outlook is bright, there’s still a wariness among lawmakers, if not outright aversion, to spending money.

That predisposition is likely to guide how legislators respond to and act on initiatives this year that come with price tags: education, health care and taxes. With the first two weeks of the session down, here’s a rundown on the big ticket items:

Taxes: Just when it looked like there might be a session without a tax cut proposal, one comes from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. A draft plan comes before the House Revenue and Taxation committee Tuesday and will likely be moved along for a subsequent full hearing.

The Star Republican’s proposal calls for taking a tenth of a point off the top two personal income tax rates, bringing them to 7.3 and 7 percent, and doing the same for the corporate income tax, bringing it to 7.3 percent as well. Idaho lawmakers look at bordering states and would love to get top tax rates below 7 percent, so if this gains traction, it could be a start. To provide some relief for lower wage earners who don’t pay the top rates, the state would increase the $100 per person grocery tax credit by $10.

The total financial impact is around $27 million, $20 million from dropping the top tax rate alone. How the state would cover the difference hasn’t been spelled out, but hey, there is this other proposal out there that costs about the same.

Primary Care Access Program: The proposed $30 million plan to subsidize basic preventive health care for poorer Idahoans who lack health insurance depends on existing revenue from cigarette and tobacco taxes. That measure will be coming before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, in addition to the Health and Welfare Committee.

“Let me be clear,” state Health and Welfare Director Richard Armstrong told legislative budget writers Monday as he outlined the proposal. It is “not an entitlement program,” because enrollment is subject to available funding and participants share costs and also must actively engage in their treatment plans or lose eligibility.

To Moyle, who sits on Rev and Tax, that’s exactly what it is. “Why would I support an entitlement program?” he asked The Associated Press on Wednesday. The basic care plan has to go through his committee because of its reliance on cigarette and tobacco taxes. That doesn’t do much for its overall odds of passage.

Remember, the basic care plan was proposed in the absence of any foreseeable movement by lawmakers on expanding Medicaid to cover the 78,000 Idahoans who don’t qualify for insurance. Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, has introduced an expansion bill. Though its chances are slim, there it is, out on the table.

Education: At least there’s consensus here, right? Well, mostly. The case for Idaho doing more for K-12 education has taken hold, as people see that improvements there will possibly prompt more students to pursue higher ed and get better jobs, in turn boosting wages and the economy.

So there appears to be little standing in the way of the proposed $116.6 million, 7.9 percent increase for in public schools spending. That includes the $40 million second year of the state’s plan to boost teacher pay, $20 million for literacy and STEM education programs, and $30 million for discretionary costs, which restores operational spending to 2009 levels.

Proposals for higher ed face a tougher road. Gov. Butch Otter proposed a 9.6 percent increase for community colleges and an 8.8 increase for four-year schools, including a set-aside of $10 million that would lock in tuition costs for students just entering college. Critics say such locks actually lead to higher rates overall and lawmakers aren’t sold.

Finally, a few words about…

Add the Words: Two Democratic senators introduced legislation Tuesday to create state anti-discrimination protections based on a person’s “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” — the specific words that would be added to the Idaho Human Rights Act. It’s essentially the same bill that died in House committee last year, with a few added definitions.

It’s not the potential compromise that Senate leaders have been working on. That bill, still a couple weeks off, might be patterned on what Utah approved last year. Utah extended protections in housing and employment to LGBT individuals, but did not deal with discrimination in public accommodations, such as restaurants and other businesses who might deny service based on the owner’s religious beliefs.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSbilld