At the start of any legislative session—especially in an election year--“it’s hard to know what people are going to throw at the wall and hope sticks,” as Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, puts it.
But tax relief, education and continued debate around Medicaid funding and the ballot initiative process are gearing up to be top issues in the Legislature’s 2020 session, which kicked off in Boise this week.
Local lawmakers say they plan to bring some bills of their own that could directly affect communities in District 26, including legislation to ban the use of exploding targets on state lands, create public transportation taxing districts and provide loan assistance to teachers working in rural areas.
Their biggest priorities for the session, though, are matters the whole state is grappling with, some of which went unresolved in 2019.
“It’s going to be an interesting, challenging session,” said Stennett, who serves as Senate minority leader.
Here’s what’s on District 26 lawmakers’ minds in 2020:
Gov. Brad Little’s No. 1 priority this year is education, he told constituents during his State of the State and Budget Address on Monday. The Legislature will decide this year whether to implement recent recommendations from the governor’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” K-12 task force.
Little’s proposed budget includes $30 million as a “down payment” for raising the salaries of the state’s most experienced teachers in the coming years, a $3.2 million increase in literacy funding and the creation of new career technical education facilities across the state.
Education is also a top priority for District 26 Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding. Toone said she would like to see the Legislature fund the third rung of the state’s Career Ladder, providing districts with $60,000 allocations for veteran teachers.
“It’s our constitutional duty to fund education equitably throughout the state, and that includes wages,” Toone said.
Toone, a former teacher herself, applauded Little’s recommendation that $1 million go toward training and resources to help educators better identify and assist children facing social and emotional challenges. But to effectively serve all the teachers and students in the state, she said, that funding should be more in the ballpark of $4 to $5 million.
“This needs to be a local control thing, but I don’t think it can be pooh-poohed and done poorly,” she said. “There’s too much at risk. If we don’t address it now, we’ll pay for it later.”
Little has said he would like to see grocery sales tax relief for Idahoans this year, made possible using a suggested $35 million from the state’s tax relief fund. That fund is made up of sales tax money collected from out-of-state retailers.
Until she learns more details about what exactly that tax relief could look like, Stennett said, she’s “sitting on the fence” about it.
“If there’s a path forward without too large of an economic hit that is strategic to [help] the people who need it most, I would entertain that,” she said.
Meanwhile, the perennial question of whether to let Idaho cities and counties vote to implement their own sales tax for special projects continues to come up in discussion.
Cities and counties in favor of the idea say letting voters decide whether to pay a local-option tax would give municipalities another source of funding for some much-needed improvements. Opponents of the idea argue that it’s unfair to tax visitors for community projects that won’t benefit them, and worry that it could hurt businesses in taxed areas.
Idaho already lets resort towns with less than 10,000 people—such as Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley—implement a local-option tax. But Stennett and Toone say other towns and counties in District 26 could benefit from the ability to implement such a tax as well.
Financially struggling counties like Lincoln, “one of the poorest counties in the state,” could use a local sales tax to pay for infrastructure and public safety needs, Stennett said.
Proponents of local-option taxes have suggested they could also help local governments become less reliant on property taxes. Property taxes have shot up in Idaho in recent years, especially in urban areas, more than doubling for some Idahoans.
The Legislature will need to start looking into the property tax increase and how to address it in the months and years ahead, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told reporters at a pre-session question-and-answer event hosted by the Associated Press.
If not, “I do think at a certain point the body politic will get fed up with these issues and take them into their own hands,” Bedke said.
One of the most contentious issues of the 2019 session—whether and how to fund the expansion of Medicaid, as passed by voters in a 2018 ballot initiative—is a priority once again for local legislators.
Little has proposed that counties cover $8.5 million of the $41 million cost, “as Medicaid expansion begins to pay for services the counties used to cover.”
Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, and Toone said they would like to see the state fund its share in a way that alleviates the financial burden on counties: “The reason to do Medicaid expansion” in the first place “is to relieve some of the pressure on the counties and the indigent care fund,” Davis said. Counties in District 26 and across the state are “already strapped and the indigent fund was very difficult for a lot of them,” she continued. “Our counties are urging us to find a solution.”
Another subject of heated debate last year—the ballot initiative process that made Medicaid expansion possible—will also likely resurface this session. A bill from Republican lawmakers to tighten the process, making it significantly more difficult to get a voter initiative on the ballot, passed through the Legislature in 2019 but was vetoed by Little, who cited concerns about legal challenges.
Both Stennett and Davis said they’d like to see the Legislature devote more attention to fixing Idaho’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure as the state continues to grow.
“In the Wood River Valley, our roads are a disaster,” Davis said, noting that she “constantly” gets emails from constituents about road safety. “They’re in need. We’re behind.”
The governor’s recommended budget includes $99 million for highway construction projects. “But that’s still not enough,” Davis said.
Stennett said she doesn’t foresee the state putting a significant amount of new money toward infrastructure this year. But she’s hopeful that awareness is growing.
“I’ve been screaming from the rafters about infrastructure for years, but finally I’m hearing in the language that we’ve got to address roads and bridges and talk about infrastructure,” she said. “At least they’re sitting down and understanding that we’re bursting at the seams with new populations, the growth is going to demand this and we’ve got to start looking at it.”