Nearing the end of the legislative session

Senators talk after their session March 23 at the Capitol building in Boise.

DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS FILE

Hang onto your hats: The annual legislative session starts Monday, and we’re all going to be in for a wild ride.

This session kicks off with perhaps more uncertainty than any session in recent memory. Looming over legislators is a governor’s race likely to sway legislative politics in unforeseen ways, a new federal tax bill that will throw a wrinkle into Republican plans for a state tax cut, a similar fog of unpredictability over how federal changes to Obamacare will shape Idaho health care policy, an emboldened far-right wing of the GOP that’s all but promised to make more chaos for the establishment wing of the party, a governor who likely has a few surprises up his sleeve for his last session, and a Senate with new leadership.

Here’s the good news: Idaho, the fastest-growing state in the nation, is in excellent financial shape, there’s a budget surplus, and Magic Valley Republicans still hold powerful leadership positions that can safeguard Idahoans from some of the more harebrained ideas likely to surface in what even lawmakers themselves have predicted will be a freewheeling session.

Forgive us for thinking of the old Idaho pundit joke about the Legislature: Let’s just hope they adjourn before doing too much damage.

Regardless of how much political posturing takes place this session, lawmakers have several core policy decisions they can’t afford to botch. And here’s a warning: After lawmakers failed to act last session on some of the most pressing state matters — or when they did, it blew up in their faces (remember the summer Supreme Court case on the governor’s grocery tax-repeal veto?) — some of these will sound familiar:

Taxes

Speaking of the grocery tax, lawmakers’ first big topic of the session will likely focus on what to do now after Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed a bill last session that would have repealed the state’s tax on groceries. The Supreme Court upheld the veto, so as it stands now, the Legislature is back to square one.

Like we’ve seen in several of the most recent sessions, there will be much division within the GOP over how to structure a long-desired tax cut. Will it be in the form of income tax relief, as the House preferred last session, or will they make another go at repealing the grocery tax, the preference of the Senate, and hope to have enough votes to override what would surely be another veto from Otter?

The GOP would be wise to remember that many Idahoans will see their federal taxes temporarily trimmed over the next few years thanks to the federal tax-relief bill passed by Republicans in the fall. If Idaho Republicans truly believe in tax cuts as sound economic policy — instead of using them as cheap political footballs to get reelected — it should matter that widespread tax relief is soon underway in Idaho in the form of those federal cuts. Worth further consideration: Repealing the state’s grocery tax would cost the state nearly $80 million in revenue a year; a state income-tax cut would leave Idaho about $21 million short for every 0.1 percent drop.

Perhaps some of the money previously pegged for tax cuts could instead be reinvested back into state programs that are helping fuel Idaho’s booming economy? Say, workforce development programs like those at the College of Southern Idaho? A public preschool program or other education efforts aimed at encouraging more students to pursue schooling after high school? What about addressing that massive transportation shortfall?

Education

More state money goes to education than any other spending category, by a lot. Don’t expect that to change this session.

Perhaps the biggest curveball to this budget behemoth will come from the governor, who is quietly floating a plan to create a new position for an education czar to oversee some aspects of the state’s four-year universities. The aim is to consolidate some university services at a statewide level — so instead of every university having its own human relations department, for example, there would be one central state H.R. department for all the universities. Some have estimated the education czar position — Otter is calling it a higher-ed CEO — would save the state tens of millions of dollars.

It’s an intriguing idea that deserves discussion. We’re all for saving taxpayer money, but the position, if created, must do nothing to disrupt the academic freedom and local decision-making at the four-year schools. Idaho must retain its tradition of local autonomy.

Overall, we believe there are still fundamental flaws in the way the state funds education, the most significant consequences of which have led most of the state’s districts to shift a massive tax burden onto local residents through levies and bonds just to keep the schoolhouse roof from collapsing. That puts rural and poorer districts at a distinctive disadvantage. A task force is taking a hard look at education funding, but there will be no appetite this session to do anything drastic.

In the meantime, there are steps lawmakers could take this session to further boost teacher pay and help districts retain good teachers. Rep. Sally Toone from Gooding has suggested forgiving student loans for teachers who commit to rural districts. Until we can address education funding reform in a serious way, we’ll need innovative ideas like Toone’s to bolster one of the lowest-funded education system in the nation.

Health care

Idaho just can’t seem to figure it out. While the state’s Affordable Care Act insurance pool is functioning well — more than 102,000 Idahoans are signed up for 2018 plans — there has been no relief for the 78,000 who into a coverage gap between the exchange and Medicaid.

Last year, lawmakers told voters they needed to wait and see what Congress would do with Obamacare before committing to a state solution.

We waited. We saw. Now it’s time to act.

An estimated 38,000 in the gap could gain coverage under a plan from Health and Welfare led by Director Dick Armstrong and Insurance Director Dean Cameron to obtain two federal Medicaid waivers. Rallying behind the plan is the least Idaho lawmakers can do for the state’s working poor.

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