The opening days of the Idaho legislative session are full of ebullience, optimism and goodwill. Even House Speaker Scott Bedke was downright giddy during Friday’s legislative preview session.
There generally seems to be a remarkable amount of head-nodding over priorities and optimism about solving some of the state’s biggest problems.
The session, though, invariably goes off the rails with fringe issues that few people saw coming as a pressing problem in search of a solution and devolves from there to petty bickering between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans and Republicans and House and Senate.
Let’s stick with the optimism for now, though, and Friday’s legislative preview offered some spots for potential compromise and accomplishments.
The annual preview event put on by the Associated Press is an opportunity for the Idaho press corps covering the upcoming legislative session to have an on-the-record Q&A with the governor and House and Senate leaders.
In attendance Friday were Idaho Gov. Brad Little, House Minority Leader Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, House Speaker Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.
Here are my big takeaways (sticking with the optimistic outlook) for the upcoming session:
Property tax reformsS
Bedke acknowledged there are some “Draconian” measures being talked about out there, but he said voters back in his home district cautioned him not to “overfix” the problem that punishes everyone. Rubel and Stennett continued to push for increasing the homeowners exemption and indexing it to inflation and increasing the circuit breaker for senior citizens. Hill and Bedke acknowledged, with some reservations, both solutions.
Hill talked about some controls on local spending and possibly changing how property valuations are done. Everyone on the panel acknowledged it’s a multi-faceted issue and there’s no one single fix, which is good. I think there are little tweaks all around the edges that could get the job done and keep everyone happy.
Idaho’s initiative process
Perhaps more important than what was said Friday is what wasn’t said. Bedke said it would be wise to require any initiative to include a statement of purpose and a fiscal impact statement, just as the Legislature is required to do.
What neither he nor Hill said, though, was that the state should make it more difficult to collect signatures to get a measure on the ballot, such as shortening the time frame or increasing the number of signatures. Again, a potential for compromise that both sides might be able to live with.
As Idaho Statesman reporter Ruth Brown pointed out during the questioning Friday, Idaho has 651 prisoners housed in Texas and another 867 prisoners housed in county jails. The Democrat and Republican leaders seemed to agree that sentencing reform needs to be a part of the solution, but increasing capacity is also going to have to play a role.
Grocery tax repeal
Everyone seemed to be skittish about lower-than-expected revenues, so no one was in a rush to promise to eliminate the grocery tax. Bedke said it would mean an $80 million to $90 million hit to the budget. He suggested, rather, increasing the grocery tax credit that Idaho families currently receive. That would lessen the local burden while still keeping a revenue stream from “out-of-staters.” Sounds like a reasonable compromise.
Gov. Little acknowledged that higher education has a tough row to hoe, with a tuition freeze and state funding cuts. He pointed to a report from last year identifying places to consolidate among all institutions of higher ed, including payroll, information technology, purchasing and human resources. But that’s only $38 million over 10 years. Little mentioned having to cut individual programs but said he thought the presidents and the Board of Education are up to the task.
Well, I did say I wanted to stay optimistic, so we’ll skip this one.
Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.
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