TWIN FALLS — After the longest-ever session of 2021, some legislators are bracing for more of the same. Others anticipate a body that is ready to be done with the session in time to campaign during an election year.
A budget surplus, continuing questions on funding education, ever-present water issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues are sure to keep lawmakers busy.
Here’s what several south-central Idaho lawmakers said about their hopes and plans for the 2022 legislative session.
Idaho has topped the list of fastest-growing states in the country for the past several years. Growth, combined with economic policy, and costs that have been offset by federal coronavirus dollars has resulted in a substantial $2 billion surplus, and Magic Valley legislators anticipate the discussion on what to do with that money will take up a good portion of the session.
“I think that an inordinate amount of time is going to be spent on the budget surplus,” said Rep. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley. “When we’ve got that big pot of money sitting out there, you can bet that all 105 members of the legislature have some idea where it oughta go.”
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Most lawmakers have said a portion of the money should be used on one-time infrastructure projects to help the state catch up to the unprecedented growth of the last several years.
“If we’re going to spend it, we need to spend it on one-time infrastructure projects to keep up with the expanding population that Idaho has,” Wood said.
The likely list of infrastructure projects that could see some surplus money includes broadband, roads, transportation, education and healthcare infrastructure and increasing police and fire and emergency services to match the population.
“All of those services that citizens demand, you’ve got to keep up with that,” Wood said.
Wood said he would prefer to see funds allocated for a rainy day rather than pursue tax reduction.
“One of the last things that needs to happen is any kind of tax relief,” Wood said. “If the economy takes a tumble or goes in the tank for a period of time … we’re going to find ourselves without the ability to pay the bills that we need to be paying.”
Sen. Jim Patrick said there are a lot of options on the table, but he agrees that any expenditures need to be one-time.
“My idea is we could put it into a bonding fund for the roads or maybe the schools,” the Twin Falls Republican said. “We could draw it out through the year, and replenish it as money is available. And we do that some, but I think we could do more of it.”
Rep. Lance Clow, also a Republican from Twin Falls, expects lawmakers will be discussing see some kind of tax rebate.
“I would imagine there will be an effort to reduce some of the income tax rates because the economy is so strong,” Clow said. “I could see reasons for doing that, but I’d need to see all the numbers before I could actually say that’s a smart thing to do.”
Like many in the legislature, Clow sees an opportunity to use some of the surplus to make meaningful use of one-time money to catch up with Idaho’s recent growth.
“We still have a pent-up demand for repairing our highways, doing road work around the state, bridges, projects like that,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, a Ketchum Democrat, also sees the surplus as prime for use to respond to unprecedented growth.
“That’s taxpayer money. It needs to be put into services and infrastructure,” Stennett said. “It is imperative that we address vast infrastructure needs facing our state.”
More money to support water infrastructure is at the top of Rep. Linda Wright Hartgen’s wish list.
“One of the big things in Idaho is obviously recharging our aquifers,” said Hartgen, a Republican from Twin Falls. “We have a five-year plan that’s been so well researched, and it’s really helped, especially in times of drought that we need to put more money into that recharge plan.”
Hartgen echoes calls for money to be put into road infrastructure as well as broadband across the entire state.
“We have so many small communities that have no internet access,” she said. “When they do, it’s very very poor.”
Ethics, civility and grandstanding
Patrick said the things he will work hardest on during the session include civility and conflict resolution.
“Those are pretty basic things,” Patrick said. “We have training every year, but we need more of that. But some groups have a lot of influence and it isn’t civil, it’s just mean in a lot of cases.”
“Not everyone has to agree with something, and everyone is entitled to their opinions, and there’s a lot of ideas out there,” he said. “But if you just figure out how to make it work and resolve differences between each group, we’ll get a lot further.”
The legislature may look at ways to improve ethics committees as a response to complaints received about the two ethics committees formed last year to investigate the conduct of former Rep. Aaron Von Ehlinger and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, said Clow.
“We had two ethics complaints that went through that process and it revealed what some people would describe as some inefficiencies,” he said. “If your friend’s found guilty and you’re convinced the person’s innocent, then you’re sure the system is broken. But if you felt someone was guilty and they were found guilty, you feel the system worked.”
To further focus on maintaining civility, the legislature has revived a Respectful Workplace Task Force, which will revisit guidelines and training for maintaining civility amongst legislators. Hartgen, who will sit on the task force, said the statehouse is no place for drama, it is a place where people come together to find consensus to craft the best policies for the state.
“Nobody is exempt from at times not being civil,” she said. “And we need to have that be our first thought and foremost thought when we’re dealing with our colleagues in the house and in the senate and the administration. There’s no room for incivility in the state of Idaho and especially in the capitol. I feel that we need to hold ourselves above that.”
Most lawmakers agree that with 2022 being an election year, there will likely be an increase in bills crafted mostly to serve as position statements for future candidates.
“I think the debate on the house floor is going to be fairly excruciating from the point of view that as members of the legislature can get away with it, they’ll be campaign speeches as opposed to real debate of the merits of whatever bill we’re debating,” Wood said.
Lickley said that while there is no doubt bills will be brought forward that serve to make a name for the sponsor, Idaho is better served by carefully crafted legislation that draws input from communities, organizations and businesses affected by the legislation.
“I think we’ll see a lot of jockeying for statements and positions just to make a political statement,” Lickley said. “I am afraid that much like last year I think we’ll continue to see a lot of statement legislation and a kind of shoot-from-the-hip approach as opposed to a collaborative approach and the long-term strategic look at what’s best for Idaho.
“And I don’t like to just pass legislation based on somebody’s grand idea without it being fully vetted by the people at home and the organizations and business that are affected by it,” she said.
The spectacle will no doubt include some fireworks, and from a certain perspective, could even provide some entertainment.
“I wish I owned stock in peanuts and popcorn,” Lickley said.
Sen. Lee Heider, a Twin Falls Republican, said every year bills are brought forward that confound the senses.
“We saw bills that were totally preposterous,” Heider said. “It’s something that you have to be aware of going in, is that you’re going to have to block some of these bills that are a little bit crazy.”
Heider says that, for the most part, the legislative bodies get along well, with a few exceptions.
“We have a couple of people that are a little bit on the edge in our body, but for the most part we get along very very well,” Heider said. “From my perspective, the senate is very cooperative and works together to get the things done that need to be done for the state of Idaho.”
“I just hope it doesn’t consume all of our time,” said Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding. “There’s other pressing issues that we truly need to deal with in a short amount of time, because it is an election year and we usually do get out early, because people want to hit the campaign trail.’
One item Clow suspects will come up in the Education Committee could be an effort to bring Idaho teachers on to state’s health care plan. Currently, the state distributes money to the districts to pay for health care plans, but based on the size of the district, different qualities of plans are available.
“In Idaho, all teachers in general are not on the state health insurance program because they are local employees of the school districts,” Clow said. “That creates real hodge-podge and variety of health insurance programs for teachers across the state.”
“I think we’re going to see a strong effort this year to take on that and potentially offer to school districts the opportunity to join the state health insurance program,” Clow said. If approved, it would potentially require a large appropriation of surplus funds, a one-time expenditure to fund the self-insurance aspect of those programs, and then bring those teachers on to the state insurance program.
“We have a really good opportunity this year to fix something that — I won’t necessarily say is broken — but wasn’t operating very smoothly and fair to all teachers,” Clow said.
Clow also sees an opportunity to reduce property taxes by using excess revenues to pay down some of the bonds and levies for school districts across the state, which would transfer the burden off property owners.
“There are many people who believe that local school districts shouldn’t be dependent on supplementals to help fund education,” Clow said. “Because not every school district will pass them, and not every school district is equal in the value of their properties. Some communities have higher wealth, so it would be a smaller levy to get a similar amount of money. So this push on property taxes, it may mean that we should be shifting funds from the state to reduce these school levies.”
Toone agrees that property tax relief from one-time paying down school bonds would be good for schools and taxpayers.
“If you look at true property tax, our school bonds and levies make up 50% of most of the tax bills,” Toone said. “Maybe we should take a portion of our windfall and pay down some of those school levies and tax bonds.”
Another education priority for Toone has been working on loan forgiveness for Idaho teachers. Educators can apply for a federal loan forgiveness program after working for 10 years, and the number of people selected for it is very small. Toone proposes offering loan forgiveness to educators in the first five years of their career to try and keep young teachers in the system. The State Board of Education has picked up the bill, so there is a chance for it to receive some attention this session.
“We’ll see how far it goes,” Toone said. “But we’ve got to do something to incentivize teachers to stay in the system. We’ve got to help them, and heaven knows it’s not our salaries that will keep them in Idaho.”
To support early childhood education, Lickley said she would like lawmakers to have another look at the $6 million dollar early childhood education grant lawmakers narrowly rejected last year.
“My goal this year is to take another look at that and see if we can’t release some of that federal money that was issued under the Trump administration into our early childhood collaboratives across the state,” Lickley said.
The Magic Valley has two Early Learning Collaboratives that Lickley would like to see better supported in their mission of identifying resources and programs to assist parents and communities in getting kids reading at grade level and prepared for school earlier than third grade.
“I’m a big proponent of early childhood education and giving our parents the resources that they need to make certain their kiddos are ready for school,” Lickley said.
Patrick said he thinks there will be some discussion to make school funding tied to enrollment, which it is being done on an emergency basis, rather than providing funding based on average daily attendance.
“I think a more steady system would be in order ... I think it should be more permanent,” Patrick said.
All-day kindergarten is another education item that could come up.
“It’s been brought up quite a few times,” Hartgen said. “But I think there’s lots more research into it this year and lots more people are on board, so we’ll see where that goes, but I do expect to see all day kindergarten come up so we can look at it and see what comes from it.”
For Sen. Stennett, underfunded schools and low pay for educators needs to be addressed, because teachers continue to be drawn to neighboring states that pay higher wages for school workers and teachers.
“We keep training, and they keep going out of state with our training, and that is not fiscally responsible,” Stennett said. “So are we going to talk about being more competitive in wages?”
Lickley serves on Idaho Behavior Health Council, which delivered a strategic action plan to the Governor and State leadership. The plan will provide for rolling out the 988 crisis hotline in July. Lickley said the crisis hotline has been a priority for her, and she will continue to advocate to put the necessary funding and framework in place.
The plan would also provide for a crisis response system for children and teens, including establishing crisis assessment centers in each of the seven judicial districts on a pilot basis.
“Right now most of our parents, the only access they have to crisis system they have is the emergency room,” Lickley said. “And those are not equipped to deal with mental and behavioral health and substance abuse issues.”
Heider is an advocate for cloud-seeding, and says expanding it is a priority for him.
“We want to make sure we have a good snow pack. It’s critical to our water in the Magic Valley and the whole Snake River Plain,” he said. “I think it’ll be there from day one.”
Getting the water to come out of the sky is only part of the problem, Lickley said. If a state contract for cloud-seeding is paid, determining who then gets access to the water when it becomes available is complicated. It’s excessively complicated, and takes in to account all stakeholders, and the state needs to make sure its obligations are met, she said.
“Does it go in to the groundwater, does it go in to the surface water, who can use that water? Those are the types of things — ownership of that when it’s done,” Lickley said. “We started to address some of that last year. It ends up being extremely complicated ... but you’ve got to have clouds to make cloud-seeding work.”
Lickley is aware of many water infrastructure projects that will enhance and preserve available water, making more available for irrigation.
“We’ve identified a list of priority projects that we really would like to see, whether we use one-time money for project that would support water infrastructure,” Lickley said. “We’ve got a lot of aging infrastructure, some of our dams need to be looked at and fixed. I think we’ll continue to look at cloud seeding as an option to help supplement some of the drought that we’ve been underneath.”
Another water issue facing the state concerns aging wastewater and clean drinking water infrastructure that needs to be upgraded or replaced. Federal money is available, and Lickley suspects the legislature will take a look at ways to support projects across the state, specifically for some of the rural communities that are unable to fund a bond or levy for the cost of the upgrade.
“Our rural communities really struggle with how to put that in place, because they’re already strapping their local taxpayers,” Lickley said. “Federal monies coming in really have the ability to make a difference in the rural communities.”
Patrick lives and farms in a drought area in Twin Falls County.
“Last year about a third of it I didn’t farm. This year could be worse,” Patrick said.
From his perspective, priorities for addressing the drought include more recharge to the aquifers, more water storage in reservoirs and improving canal efficiencies like lining the canals to deliver more water to irrigators.
“What we want to do is continue to developing recharge sites ... and when water is available we put more of it in the ground,” Patrick said. “And it costs money to get those sites available.”
“One of the problems, when you get more efficient, you put less recharge in the ground, so it kind of comes back to haunt you,” he said.
Patrick said he would like to see improved water measurement made on the Snake River.
“The way it is now, it’s not measured enough,” Patrick said. “So if you go back and say ‘two weeks ago this is what it was, and now it’s less, so let’s just figure the whole two weeks was less. And that’s not good water measurement. And that’s something that’s got to be fixed. And that will take some money to build proper water measurement infrastructure.”
A change of employee compensation is in the works for state employees, as wages in many fields have gone up, luring state workers away from government positions to the private sector. Patrick expects the negotiations to take up a good portion of time.
“How do you pay people enough?” Patrick said. “And It’s another ongoing expense.”
He added that, historically, there have been times when the state has raised salaries and then went into recession the following year.
“Many of the agencies and departments are asking in their budgets for extra people,” Stennett said. “We can’t continue to grow like this and have pressure on all of our services and not adjust that we have an adequate amount of people to be able to serve their communities and the state. I just think we are behind on that.”
Keeping a workforce available and ready to take on wildfires is another concern for Stennett. The Department of Lands runs a top-notch firefighting expertise and training programs, but, like many fields, keeping workers can be a challenge.
“The difficulty is to keep them, because again we don’t pay a lot,” Stennett said.” They have spectacular training, and we only hire them seasonally, and nobody can earn a living doing that. How do we make sure we keep those well-trained … and make sure they can stay and feel like they can earn a living?”
Stennett points out Idaho’s minimum wage is behind the states surround us.
“ I don’t see how you can be competitive if you don’t start looking at how you can keep your trained professionals,” she said. “We’ve got to do things better to make sure that there is a workforce out there.”
The coronavirus pandemic
Legislation addressing pandemic-related issues will doubtless be back for discussion in 2022.
“I would imagine we will see some activity from people wanting to deal with what they would describe as invasions of individuals personal rights on vaccinations, businesses requiring vaccinations and things like that,” Clow said.
Idaho has been reluctant to force people to be vaccinated.
“I think the governor has done a tremendous job in handling that pandemic,” Heider said. “He hasn’t insisted that we get vaccinated, he’s recommended that we all get vaccinated, and I think that’s really prudent advice.”
Idaho is very strong right-to-work state, and personal property rights, Stennett said.
“Basically we’ve always allowed employers to do as they see fit that is safest on their premises,” she said. “There’s a lot of education that we tried to do during the extended session ,which we probably will have to continue to do during the general session.”
Covid bills in the special session bills made it through the house but not the senate.
“I do think we’ll probably see those again,” Hartgen said. “I was not supportive of many of them simply because because I didn’t think they fit the bill.”
Two years ago Idaho passed legislation to register all vape retailers across Idaho. Currently, vape products are only taxed at 6%, whereas tobacco products are taxed 40% of wholesale value. Some Magic Valley lawmakers would like to see that changed.
“We will look at seeing if we can’t tax perhaps on parity vape products with tobacco products, just to make sure that we’re protecting the most vulnerable,” Lickley said.
According to Office of Drug Policy Healthy Youth Survey, 23% of the entire high school population have tried vaping in the past month.
“I think as a protective barrier, our schools are asking for this, and I think it’s worth taking a look at,” Lickley said. “If we can make it a little more difficult for them to purchase them, let’s start there.”
Hartgen also would like to see measures that target reduced access to vaping.
“I’m so against drugs and things like that that pull our juveniles in to the criminal system” Hartgen said. “I’ve seen personally, working in the courts, how this type of thing is what starts their road down the wrong path. It’s hard to get turned around, so we need to work and protect them as much as we can.”
Hartgen said the tax bill passed in 2021 addressed property tax reductions for low-income or fixed-income seniors, known as the Circuit Breaker exemption, but she would like to revisit the bill and make Circuit Breaker more available to people whose property values have increased with Idaho’s growth.
“The Circuit Breaker was a huge issue for me, and I think that we need to make it so where it’s readily available for those who need it, and not have such stringent rules that because someone’s house rises in value they can no longer apply for the Circuit Breaker,” Hartgen said. “They didn’t make their house increase, they bought it at a very low level years ago, especially if they’re senior citizens, they bought a house that was very low in price and over the years its raised. They’re on a very fixed income and they cannot pay these taxes.”
Toone also wants the Circuit Breaker to be looked at and made more available.
“I’m not a fan of tax cuts,” Toone said. “I think we have other issues rather than just give everybody $50 in the state of Idaho. I think we need to look real seriously at the tax scenario. We need to address the Circuit Breaker, people getting taxed out of their home, we need to go back to the home-owner exemptions.”
Toone also said it’s time to end the exemption of internet sales tax distribution to counties and cities. Statute says that 11.5% as is statutorily required. 11.5% is currently exempted, and Toone wants to see that distributed. “That’s money that our counties and our small rural taxing districts could absolutely use.”