Idaho lawmakers return to Capitol Hill. Here are 5 key questions for this session

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Following the longest session in state history in 2021 and less than two months after its formal adjournment, the Idaho Legislature is set to meet again Monday – with a state surplus of $ 1.6 billion and how to spend it, at the forefront of the minds of lawmakers.

The record surplus is due to a carry-over of the fund balance of nearly $ 900 million from fiscal year 2021, which ended on June 30, as well as higher-than-expected revenue from taxes on sales, income and businesses last year. This is in addition to the billions in American Rescue Plan Act federal funds that continue to flow into the state.

Senator Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, will this year co-chair the Joint Finance and Credit Committee, which is responsible for writing the state’s checks.

“While I don’t agree with how we get these federal dollars or where they come from, like the borrowed money, that’s not the issue,” Agenbroad told the Idaho Statesman by phone. “It’s up to us to seize this unique opportunity and invest wisely. That’s what I’m trying to do, not only with our surplus dollars, but also with our federal dollars that we receive.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers generally agree on these areas: infrastructure, education, and some form of tax relief.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, likened the upcoming appropriation process to managing a family budget.

“If you get unexpected money, what are you going to do? You are going to pay off some debt. You’re going to invest in these things that are going to make your life later financially easier, ”Bedke said over the phone.

Where the two parties diverge, it is on specific investments as well as on their supervision of the surplus. GOP lawmakers insist the money should be used for one-time expenses, such as infrastructure projects to update the state’s obsolete bridges and roads.

Democrats argue the surplus is also linked to excessive revenue – the result of underfunding state-controlled agencies. Minority parliamentary leader Ilana Rubel D-Boise said she was “not buying the language of the surplus.”

“When you don’t pay your mortgage and pay your utility bills, you can have a lot of money in the bank, but you shouldn’t call it a surplus,” Rubel said over the phone. “We have money in hand, you will say, because we do not fund our schools, our universities, our roads and our bridges, our emergency services. “

LEGISLATORS SEEK TO FUND FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN

Expect a resumption of the long-standing debate about whether to fund full-time kindergarten. The state currently only funds half-day nursery school.

School districts with day-long programs fund them by using additional property taxes, federal money, or by charging tuition fees. Last year, the State Board of Education recommended state funding for full-day programs, after the 2021 legislation failed to do so. The bill, HB 331, estimated the cost of implementing a full-time kindergarten in 2022 at $ 42 million.

Full-time kindergarten enjoys bipartisan support and some lawmakers are optimistic about its passage this year. Rubel said it was “a lot, a lot late”.

Agenbroad said he believed the support would be there this session.

“There are certainly those who will be against this for various reasons,” he said. “You don’t take anything for granted, and until we actually see the legislation, it’s hard to say – but I think there is enough support.”

GOP lawmakers also expect legislation to invest in literacy programs for students as well as teacher salaries and professional development.

WAIT FOR A PARTISAN DEBATE ON INCOME TAX REDUCTIONS

GOP lawmakers are planning income tax cuts again, after approving nearly $ 400 million in tax relief in 2021. This year could see another $ 400 million in relief, including a reduction of income tax of $ 200 million, or a rate cut from 6.5% to 6%, for the top tax bracket, the Associated Press reported.

The Democrats, for their part, are arguing for a reduction in the property tax. Rubel said she found the new income tax cut “deeply frustrating”.

“Anytime we have two cents to rub, all they want to do is cut taxes for the rich,” Rubel said. “There are many ways to help people on fixed incomes and those who really struggle with property taxes. ”

Bedke disagreed. He argued that it is not wise to use a one-time surplus income to offer property tax relief because it is a short-term solution.

“It doesn’t solve anything,” he said.

Senatorial Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said property tax relief could help ease rising housing costs.

“It’s disastrous in most areas and in my area here especially there is no inventory and it’s ridiculously expensive so service providers, teachers, health care providers , the people who serve the community… don’t have a place to live, ”Stennett says over the phone.

Another mechanism to alleviate housing costs is the Idaho Housing Trust Fund, established by the Legislature in 1992. The fund has never been used, but lawmakers are increasingly interested in allocating money to the trust and using it to help local governments and affordable housing developers. finance projects.

“I think we can develop a program that will meet their needs,” Agenbroad said. “And the reason I’m confident we can do it is that we asked (the developers), ‘What are the programs that would be most beneficial for Idaho? “”

LEGALS EXPLORE INVESTMENT IN INFRASTRUCTURE

Lawmakers are looking for ways to improve Idaho’s infrastructure, whether that’s by allocating public funds to local agencies and the Idaho Department of Transportation to improve roads and bridges, or directing federal funds intended for natural resources and broadband Internet.

Last year, Bill 362 redirected a greater share of sales tax revenue to road and other transportation projects, adding $ 80 million to the state’s transportation credits in 2022 and raising the total to $ 853 million. The bill also allowed the state to guarantee up to $ 1.6 billion over 20 years to fund transportation infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Federal Infrastructure Package, which President Joe Biden enacted, guarantees Idaho more than $ 2.5 billion over the next five years to fund various infrastructure improvements, including for the broadband and water supply systems.

Bridges across the state are nearing or past their useful life, and rapid population growth is straining “dilapidated systems” even more, Stennett said. The state shouldn’t wait “until the bridge collapses or your sewage system doesn’t work,” she said.

“These are public health and safety issues, and I think that’s the role of government,” Stennett said.

Plus, federal funds could help improve the management of natural resources, including water quality and quantity, after a historic year of drought in Idaho and across the West. In particular, the Snake and Boise river systems could be targeted for investment, Bedke said.

“There will be a will to invest in hydraulic infrastructure of all types,” he said.

MAY PRIMARY ELECTIONS INFLUENCE POLICY

All the while, one thing could change the tone and tenor of the session. It is an election year and the primaries are scheduled for May.

Lawmakers say election years tend to produce shorter, more efficient legislative sessions, as elected candidates want to return home and focus on the campaigns.

“There is nothing that makes a lawmaker more nostalgic than having someone in the house” for an election, Bedke said.

An additional distraction is Redistribution, a process to redraw legislative and congressional districts in the wake of the 2020 census. The Idaho Redistribution Commission released new maps late last year, but they are now challenged in court.

On January 14, the Idaho Supreme Court will review whether the cards pass the legal gathering. Until then, lawmakers don’t know which district they will represent in the next election.

There is also the question of whether the House and the Senate will be able to cooperate in passing bills this session. When the Legislature reconvened in November for a three-day session, the House introduced 29 bills that never saw the light of the full Senate.

Pro Senate Speaker Tem Chuck Winder R-Boise said this was due to the shortening of the period.

“There was just no time for good discussions and public contributions,” Winder said over the phone. Overall, the legislature passed a lower percentage of bills last year than in any session this decade, the Statesman recently reported.

MORE PROJECTS TO COMBAT COVID-19 VACCINE MANDATES

Winder said he expects the process to return to normal this session. This means full hearings, with plenty of opportunities for the public to testify, Winder said.

The more than 30 bills introduced in the November session largely targeted federal mandates on COVID-19 vaccines. Lawmakers expect these sponsors of the bill to make another attempt to pass legislation that prevents the federal government or employers from requiring vaccines.

However, these bills would likely meet resistance. While many GOP lawmakers, along with Republican Gov. Brad Little, have called the federal mandates too far-reaching, they are divided on whether the legislature should step in.

“Medical decisions of all kinds have to be made between you and your health care provider,” Bedke said. “And government, really, has no place in this conversation.”


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