BOISE • Education funding, whether to extend basic health coverage to the uninsured and recharging the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer will be among the biggest issues facing lawmakers when they head back to Boise in 2016.
Magic Valley lawmakers will play a major role in setting policy on all the topics that are going to have the state’s attention — Speaker of the House Scott Bedke is from Oakley, and area legislators chair several of the committees that will be in the spotlight. For one, the Health and Welfare committees, which are headed by Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls and Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, will be dealing with a $30 million proposal to extend primary care coverage to the estimated 78,000 Idahoans who don’t qualify for Medicaid but are also too poor to qualify for tax credits to buy insurance on the state’s exchange.
And other members of the local delegation have their own ideas and goals for the session. Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls and Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, are on the committee that will meet a few days before the session starts to discuss what kind of raises state employees will get this year. Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, says he will be involved in getting urban renewal reforms passed — he was on the committee that studied the issue during the interim — and is working on legislation to let stalking victims who aren’t covered under the current law get orders of protection. Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, says some of his focuses will be on clarifying oil and gas lease disputes when the owner of the mineral rights and the land are different, and on the issues that have come up as Idaho writes rules to comply with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
Area lawmakers also said they expect debate over removing pistol permitting requirements, and to see legislation targeting refugee resettlement and Planned Parenthood.
“I think that some of the social issues are probably going to get most of the headlines,” Wood said.
The state budget, as always, will be one of the major focuses when lawmakers gavel in on Jan. 11, and education funding is the biggest chunk of that. However, local lawmakers don’t expect education to be the majorly controversial topic it was in 2015 — now that the “career ladder” pay scale is in place there seems to be agreement to fund it and to continue to implement the 20 recommendations the governor’s education task force made in 2013.
“That piece, I don’t think, will have any surprises,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who co-chairs the budget-setting Joint Finances Appropriation Committee.
Bell also said lawmakers would look to increase per-classroom discretionary funding to where it was in 2009, before the recession led to deep cuts. The big funding debate on education, Bell expects, will center on higher education, including colleges and job-training programs.
There could be changes to the career ladder — Clow, who is on the House Education Committee, said they would consider how to incorporate non-teaching staff into the ladder’s structure. And Wood said there could be talk of implementing the raises faster than the five-year span of the current legislation.
“I don’t sense that anybody’s backing off on funding that, but the question is how soon to do that?” Wood said.
Clow also expects a proposal to change the funding formula to follow students when they transfer to another school — an idea pushed by charter and virtual schools especially, which are more likely to receive students midyear — to come back up, and he hopes a compromise version of it will pass. A version passed this year, but Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed it.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll get something done that will be more palatable to everybody,” Clow said.
Bell said she wants to find money to build a behavioral health center in the Magic Valley, and to address state infrastructure needs such as building maintenance. If the proposal to extend primary care to those in the “coverage gap” goes anywhere, JFAC will have to deal with how to pay for it — many lawmakers have said the money will have to come from existing funds, not tax hikes.
Aquifer recharge in the Magic Valley will take money — the deal between water users calls for recharging an additional 250,000 acre-feet of water a year into the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer.
“We’ve really got to get these facilities built to get the recharge,” Patrick said.
Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, called the settlement agreement, which was brokered by Bedke, “historic” and implementing it is one of the most important thing lawmakers will do this year, noting he has been dealing with the problem as long as he has been in the Legislature.
“Now we’re on the verge of really addressing it in a meaningful way,” he said.
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Also, the state will have to boost spending to fight wildfires — this year’s season was one of the worst on record.
“It’s a huge cost and we have to be ready for it,” Patrick said.
Cutting taxes will probably come up, as it usually has in recent years, although area lawmakers interviewed Tuesday were unsure what proposals would emerge or if anything would pass.
“It does not appear that they’re going to have something this year, but you can’t count on that,” said Bell, whose committee doesn’t set tax policy but is affected by revenue.
Kauffman noted that Idaho’s tax burden is already the second-lowest in the country per person and the 10th lowest per $100, when you add up the average the state and local burdens. He said cutting taxes would be appropriate if revenue is growing, but that government needs to have enough money to provide services, too.
“That’s the balance we always try to find,” he said.
An interim committee studying taxes ended up with four draft proposals but didn’t make any recommendations. Hartgen said their recommendation on eliminating the grocery tax is the one most worthy of discussion, although he was unsure if it would gain much traction. He doubts there will be a major rewrite of the tax code this year.
Patrick said there are some good ideas out there, but more discussion is needed. He also said he wants to see more discretionary funding for schools, saying it will help reduce local property taxes.
“I’m certainly for tax cuts,” he said. “I don’t think anybody would be against that. It would just be where and what.”
Bell’s not the only Magic Valley lawmaker whose committee will be in the public eye. There’s Heider and Wood, too. As well as the coverage gap issue, Heider said they would have to find money to prevent cuts in Medicaid reimbursement rates for in-home care for the developmentally disabled.
“We can’t tell the people that are providing disability services for our community that we’re going to drop their pay in half,” Heider said.
And while several lawmakers said they don’t expect funding for roads or raising the gas tax to be major focuses in 2016 like they were this year, Brackett’s Transportation Committee is going to have to grapple with changing Idaho’s driver’s licenses to comply, at least partially, with the federal REAL ID Act. The current waiver, which the feds say will be the last, is up in October, and if the state’s licenses don’t comply Idahoans will not be able to use them to board airplanes or enter restricted federal facilities.
Brackett’s committee will also need to take up legislation to go with a change in federal law that was part of the omnibus budget bill, raising the weight limit for trucks on interstates in Idaho to 129,000 pounds.
“That will take a lot of pressure off our state and local roads, if we can keep those on the interstate when we can,” Brackett said.
Everyone seems to agree on one thing — it will be a short session, as it often is in election years, as lawmakers will be in a hurry to get back to their districts to face any primary challengers they may have. Several said they’re aiming for a mid-March sine die adjournment, which would put them well ahead of the 2015 session, which didn’t end until April 11 due to the wrangling over education and transportation funding. (There was then a one-day special session in May.)
“We’re going to try to get in there and get out,” said Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding.