Storms are brewing for this legislative session

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Under Gov. Brad Little, Idaho may not ever be known as a high-wage state – or one of the leaders in spending for education. But the Gem State will not take a back seat in terms of efficiency.

In his first year in office, Little has cut the tar out of state regulations – gutting and simplifying 75 percent of the rules – and he has sent out the memo that he expects agencies (aside from public schools) to trim budgets by at least a couple of percentage points. And with Little’s blessing, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is leading a task force to find ways to make Idaho’s government even more efficient.

A leaner government puts a smile on the faces of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and its growing fan club in the Legislature, which views Little’s effort as a good start to holding down government’s growth. So, heading into a new session, everything for the most part appears to be hunky-dory within the GOP legislative caucuses. Legislators may get around to providing property tax relief, or eliminating the sales tax on groceries – a possibility that Little leaves open. Those would be nice things to have in the Republican trophy case in an election year.

On the Democratic side, there are questions about whether Little is going too far with his “efficiency” platform. They’re not talking about breaking the bank with spending, or taxing Idahoans to the poor house. But they want to take a closer look at the budgets and review of the regulations that Little chopped off.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum would like to hear more about where Idaho is being inefficient, because she’s not seeing wasteful practices in state government, and especially the communities she represents. She’d like this session to be a “reality check” on meeting basic needs.

“Being the fastest-growing state in the nation, we’ve done nothing to anticipate infrastructure needs … and not a huge increase in median wages,” she said. “So, our communities and people are not thriving as much as people would like to talk about.”

Rep. Ilana Rubel of Boise, the newly installed House minority leader, urges caution on the grocery sales tax. “We are in a revenue bind right now. We are way below where we thought we would be. There were some tax cuts in the past that we couldn’t afford that have led to an under-revenue situation. We’re seeing dropping literacy levels, and we are not going to be able to address these problems if we take on further revenue cuts.”

Generally, the Dems favor exploring property tax relief, oppose most other tax cuts and like the idea of local-option taxing authority – which will happen when people in Lewiston (Idaho’s Banana Belt) start building snowmen in July. But Democrats have a point. Idaho has needs, and revenue must come from somewhere.

Idaho’s four-year colleges, which already are financially starved, have agreed to a tuition freeze – which could make bad budget situations even worse. Little said the schools should look closer at being more efficient – getting rid of programs that have small enrollment and directing the resources to other areas. He wants to make sure that money goes to “students and outcomes.” We’ll see how all that turns out.

Public schools, the biggest ticket item in the state budget, should get an increase of more than $100 million this year. But there still will be a long line of school districts that will go to voters with supplemental levies – meaning that the state is not “fully” funding public schools. Mind you, no one really knows how much it will take for public schools to be “fully” funded, or how high taxes will need to go to get us there. All we know is that Idaho, languishing near the bottom of most state funding categories, is at least a few ticks shy of full funding.

Most of the budget discussions will occur in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. The higher-profile political food fights will be over older issues such as Medicaid expansion and voter initiatives, with plenty of debate over legalizing hemp, redistricting and property taxes.

This is not going to be your typical election-year “caretaker” session, and maybe not an easy one for the governor.

Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.

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