Idaho lawmakers convene Monday to kick off the 2018 legislative session, with tax relief, education and healthcare topping the list of priorities for Magic Valley legislators.
The political backdrop to this year’s session includes a tight 2018 gubernatorial race, a large number of state lawmakers seeking reelection or other offices in an election year, and uncertainty in Washington in key areas such as healthcare and tax reform.
As a result, this year’s session could be shorter and less ambitious on a policymaking level than usual, says Justin Vaughn, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.
“You never know how things play out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the legislators are more targeted in their efforts, hit the ground running and wrap things up relatively quickly this spring,” Vaughn said.
Here’s what to watch for during this year’s legislative session:
In an election year with a good economy and strong revenues, tax relief will be a priority for lawmakers. What form those tax cuts will take, however, remains unclear.
Debate over whether to cut Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax on groceries or reduce income taxes is expected to pick up where it left off at the end of last year’s session.
A legal challenge to Gov. Butch Otter’s last-minute veto of legislation that would scrap the state’s grocery tax ended in the Idaho Supreme Court upholding the veto in July, while establishing that in the future, lawmakers must present all bills to the governor before the end of the legislative session.
It’s likely that both grocery tax legislation and some form of income tax relief will come up early on in the 2018 session. Less predictable is how, if, and when lawmakers will come to an agreement on which path to take.
Ideally, said Sen. Bert Brackett (R-Rogerson), the matter would be settled sooner rather than later.
“But in the practice of politics,” he said, “it might be easier said than done.”
Magic Valley legislators indicated that they would largely favor an income tax cut over a grocery tax cut.
“My constituents, the ones I’ve visited and the ones who have called me, they’ve said that everybody should pay some tax,” said Rep. Clark Kauffman (R-Filer). “Sometimes the only tax people pay is the sales tax on groceries.”
There is strong support for a grocery tax cut elsewhere in the state, however. And others say they’d rather put the bulk of excess money toward infrastructure or rainy day funds. Meanwhile, underlying all tax discussion is uncertainty over what effect federal tax reform will have on the state.
Ultimately, productive action on tax relief and other policy areas will depend on the ability of varying camps to come together and align priorities, legislators say.
“That’s what I have concern for, that there will not be that coalescing of those different groups,” said Rep. Maxine Bell (R-Jerome). “Because everybody has something that they’re really interested in. And it just seems like this is a year when you could really get in trouble if you’re not careful.”
Lawmakers will vote this session on whether to apply for a dual waiver program that would provide health care coverage to a significant chunk of Idaho’s Medicaid gap population while cutting premiums by up to 20 percent.
The two federal waivers would provide medical coverage to an estimated 35,000 Idahoans who do not currently qualify for Medicaid or for subsidized plans on Idaho’s health insurance marketplace exchange.
One waiver would let working poor adults buy subsidized health insurance on the state’s health care exchange. Currently, adults without children living below the federal poverty line don’t qualify for these plans or for Medicaid.
People who fall under this category must then choose whether to purchase private insurance or go without. When those without insurance do go to the hospital with a medical emergency, their bills are covered by counties, the state, and others with private health insurance.
The other waiver would allow people with severe, expensive illnesses to get insurance from Medicaid rather than from the state’s health care exchange.
It’s estimated that the proposal would cost the state $22 million.
“That, I think, will be the biggest issue in healthcare: whether or not the legislature will pass the request for the waivers from [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services],” said Rep. Fred Wood (R-Burley).
Uncertainty at the federal level prevented lawmakers from taking significant action on healthcare during the last session. With little certainty coming out of Washington, it’s possible that legislators will be similarly hesitant to make big decisions again this year.
“Even though it’s an increasingly important policy topic in the minds of Idahoans, we may not see as much action on it as you’d expect,” Vaughn said.
Now three years into the career ladder law, a five-year plan to boost teachers’ salaries is expected to continue as planned without controversy.
Meanwhile, lawmakers will once again revisit the state’s school funding formula. A key question is whether Idaho should rewrite its formula to distribute funding to schools based on student enrollment rather than average daily attendance, as the legislature’s school funding formula committee has suggested.
One argument for switching over to an enrollment-based model is that schools staff classrooms and purchase supplies based on how many students are enrolled, not how many show up on any given day.
Proponents say such a formula would better serve schools that practice “mastery-based” learning, where student progress is based on subject knowledge rather than hours spent in the classroom, and wouldn’t punish schools if students take offsite career-technical courses.
But adopting an enrollment-based model would likely be more complicated than simply allocating more dollars to nontraditional schools or those with low daily attendance rates, a move that could significantly add to the state’s budget.
“My fear is that people think that if you use enrollment, you’ll just plug that new number into the formula,” said Rep. Lance Clow (R-Twin Falls). “But the only way that’ll happen is if we put more money into the formula. Whether they’ll do that, I’m not sure.”
The current funding formula also relies heavily on attendance numbers at the beginning of the year rather than the end — a model long lamented by virtual and alternative schools, which tend to attract students leaving other schools in the middle of the year.
Without a clear deadline for rewriting the formula, the task force doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to take action. Some lawmakers would like to see that change.
“At this point, I would like to see something done,” said Rep. Sally Toone (D-Gooding). “We could play the ‘what if, what if, what if’ scenario forever. We need to do something.”
As Idaho continues to experience unprecedented job growth, lawmakers will consider a report published last summer by Gov. Butch Otter’s workforce development task force.
The state Department of Labor predicts that by 2024, Idaho will have added 138,000 new jobs since 2014 — and will be 49,000 skilled workers short of filling them.
“Statewide, we need to train our students for whatever the jobs are,” said Rep. Jim Patrick (R-Twin Falls). “There’s more professional technical jobs now, and if that’s the desire of the students, well, that’s what we should be offering.”
Idaho currently lacks policy in four areas identified by the task force as key to supporting skilled labor jobs, including policies aimed at helping low-income adults afford and complete post-secondary job training.
Recommendations from the July report include the development of more apprenticeship programs, the expansion of career and technical education programs at the secondary and postsecondary level, and incentivizing school districts to incorporate workforce readiness skills throughout high school.
“Everybody knows we need more labor, and everybody knows we need better trained labor,” said Rep. Stephen Hartgen (R-Twin Falls). “If we can get better labor out of the school systems and an improved apprenticeship program, that would be a huge step forward.”
After a flurry of sexual harassment allegations in other statehouses across the country, all Idaho lawmakers will attend mandatory sexual harassment training on the second day of the legislative session.
Fourteen female Idaho lawmakers signed a letter requesting such training in November. House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said at the time that legislative leaders were already planning a similar course.
Last month, the Associated Press reported on a complaint during the 2017 legislative session alleging that Rep. James Holtzclaw (R-Meridian) made inappropriate and “mildly flirty” comments to at least two women. Holtzclaw apologized for the comments and called the complaint a “huge misunderstanding.”
The news came just one week after the state controller’s office settled a sexual and racial harassment claim from a former employee, which included an agreement to provide anti-harassment training to staff.
Days after the Holtzclaw complaint was reported, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill announced the mandatory training, which they are asking all legislative staffers to attend.
The training will cover “harassment in the workplace and will specifically address, among other matters, what does and does not constitute harassment, reporting avenues for complaints, and potential penalties for harassment,” according to a statement by Bedke and Hill.
Female legislators from the Magic Valley said they hadn’t personally experienced sexual harassment at the statehouse.
“I’ve been there a long, long time, and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t either a gentleman, or simply a colleague,” Bell said.
As a newcomer to the legislature, Toone said she had not witnessed inappropriate behavior either.
“But I think, like everything else in our world, a little bit of education on dos and don’ts is probably a good thing,” she said.