Monday marks the start of the Idaho Legislature’s 11th and last week. At least everyone hopes it’s the last week.
And winding down the session in the Christian Holy Week that leads up to Good Friday and Easter? Strictly coincidence.
There is some heavy lifting yet to do on major legislation regarding health care for the uninsured and cuts to the income tax. Also remaining: the usual smattering of appropriations bills, some held up over politics but expected to pass; a few lesser but essential policy initiatives; various pieces of cleanup legislation; and a few politically charged bills.
Let’s do the heavy lifting first:
Health care: A new bill dealing with health coverage for 78,000 lower-income Idahoans without insurance was scheduled for Monday morning in the House Health & Welfare Committee. But Sunday, committee members were notified the bill’s language was still being revised and the meeting was delayed until possibly Tuesday.
The proposal was expected to be a work in progress through the weekend, and its details — and the timing of the hearing — were open to change. House Speaker Scott Bedke noted the challenges of getting something on health care done while speaking to the Spokesman-Review this weekend: “Personally I’m growing frustrated, but there’s still, obviously enough, there’s willingness to do something. They just can’t come together. I’m not very optimistic at this point.”
There’s a lot of anxious expectation surrounding the new proposal. It’s got support from some leaders and the committee’s advocates for expanded health care, but it butts up against the Republican Legislature’s genetic antipathy for federal mandates and its deep dislike of Obamacare. If it doesn’t fly, it’s a certainty that for all the talk about having to help the “gap group” this year, nothing will get done. There will be hand-wringing, blame-assigning and perhaps some general gnashing of teeth. But it’s not an issue likely to keep lawmakers in Boise another week.
It’s expected to move through committee. After it does, it will see expedited action on the House floor. Where it goes from there is too chancy to predict.
Taxes: A Senate committee spectacularly fumbled House Majority Leader Mike Moyle’s tax cut bill last week and let it die, alone and neglected, for lack of a sponsor. Moyle is bringing a new tax cut bill before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on Monday.
The new bill will incorporate the particulars of another pending bill dealing with online sales tax. Added will be a proposal to shave one-tenth of a point off all five of Idaho’s income tax brackets, not just the top two, as proposed in the earlier bill. The grocery tax credit, increased for lower-wage earners under the earlier bill, would be untouched. The bill anticipates approximately $11 million in new revenue from the online sales tax, less $27 million in cuts, for a net decline of $16 million.
Given how fast the House passed the first tax cut bill, it’s likely members will roll out the red carpet for this one, too. The Senate, more protective of the revenue stream funding the boost in education spending, might give it a chillier welcome.
Along the way, some might recall all that talk last year about avoiding end-of-session train wrecks of important legislation, including major shifts in tax policy. That was the point of forming last year’s tax working group.
What else has to get done? Plenty, ranging from small to medium lifts. In the latter category are things like an urban renewal reform proposal that is getting more amendments; a number of bills concerning public lands; and foster-care reform, which is also going to be the subject of a interim committee, along with the K-12 schools funding formula and state employee benefits.
Closer to conclusion:
▪ A Bible-in-the-schools bill, which has passed the Senate and is before the House.
▪ Funding for public defense reform, which needs the Senate’s OK
▪ Senate action on a bill banning powdered alcohol.
▪ Final cleanup on the federal REAL ID compliance bill, to make Idaho driver’s licenses acceptable to TSA screeners at airports.
▪ Final passage of the movie-theater-and-booze bill, fixing a blue-law restriction on alcohol being served in theaters that show racy but not pornographic films.
And on the appropriations front, the $106 million Fish and Game Department budget and the $59 million Department of Lands budget got pulled back to the safety of the budget and appropriations committee last week until a dispute can be resolved over a conservation easement sought by Stimson Lumber involving Clagstone Meadows, a 13,000-acre parcel once slated for a 1,200-home development. There’s also the $24 million Attorney General’s Office budget, caught up in an undisclosed kerfuffle between the AG and Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls.
And don’t forget: The poor Commission on the Arts, whose $2 million budget failed to pass the House earlier this month. It got caught in a partisan fight when Democrats, frustrated by seeing their bills get bottled up, voted with the regular bloc of conservatives who vote reflexively against most non-essential appropriations. And even some essential ones: The $2.2 billion Medicaid budget passed last week, but with some Democrats again voting no in protest, it almost didn’t.
CORRECTION: This article first transposed the $11 million expected in new online sales tax revenue and overall tax decline of $16 million.