The Christmas season is moving into full swing. That means the Idaho Legislature’s 2019 session is rapidly approaching.
What will their priorities be?
First, shortly we’ll know if House Speaker Scott Bedke holds onto his post or if Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane picks up the reigns of the Idaho House of Representatives. A Crane win will indicate the more conservative faction in the House GOP has the upper hand. If Bedke prevails, their influence will be somewhat limited.
Second, Idaho’s new Gov. Brad Little will be laying out his priorities. As a separate branch of government, the Legislature will not just follow what Little requests. Expect our new governor to put a heavy focus on education, economic development, workforce training and other issues he articulated in the campaign.
Little is well prepared in that he came from the Legislature and has presided over the state Senate as lieutenant governor. But, both he and his staff will have to figure out the right balance of leading or following on particular policy issues, cajoling in public and one-on-one, and dealing with 105 independently-elected personalities. There will likely be a honeymoon period — but how long will it last?
Third, how will the Legislature handle Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion measure? The Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) has filed suit to strike the measure. The basis is a claimed excessive delegation of authority. It is an interesting theory but is unlikely to be successful based on how the Idaho Supreme Court has handled similar challenges in the past.
If the IFF falls short, how will the Legislature proceed? Some GOP members have hinted at repealing the measure. That is a pipe dream with Little’s vow to implement Medicaid expansion if it passed. A repeal attempt could create a substantial backlash from the public.
The more serious question will be how to fund expansion? The federal government will initially provide 90% while Idaho is still responsible for 10%. One way to do it would be to take from local counties part of the funds that currently cover the indigent in Idaho. Many county leaders backed the measure but hope to redirect those funds to local needs. Expect some push and pull.
Fourth, what other issues will rear their heads? Here are some that are stirring around:
--Idaho needs to put more money into its roads and bridges. Much more. But, that is only part of the mix. The Treasure Valley needs some kind of significant public transit system sooner rather than later. The same will be eventually needed in the Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls areas. Little needs to lead on this one.
--Education is always huge. There will be new leadership for the House Education Committee. What will be the next steps for teacher pay and to boost student performance? The link between education and good jobs requires a laser-like focus on workforce development. Idaho’s community colleges are key and should be strongly supported.
--If strong revenue growth continues, tax cuts will be an important topic. That creates an opportunity. Idaho should cut its sales tax rate but expand what it applies to, to broaden the base. Eliminating the sale tax on food could be part of the package. Utah’s Gov. Gary Herbert just rolled out a proposal to broaden Utah’s sales tax base that is worth examining.
--A legislative interim committee is proposing a package of campaign reforms, including more frequent campaign disclosures. Those need to pass but will face resistance from those who oppose transparency on these issues.
--The Legislature needs to revisit last year’s trespassing legislation. There are numerous reports of unintended consequences.
Here are some final topics that should be considered:
--Idaho needs to create avenues for local communities to build fiber networks for residents and businesses as a critical part of 21st century infrastructure. Ammon in East Idaho has rolled out a program and Idaho Falls is moving forward on a pilot built around its municipal power system. Utah has a consortium of communities rolling out fiber access. Idaho Falls is joining Utah’s UTOPIA group. Idaho should embrace this as an economic development tool and the Legislature should adopt alternative paths to implement.
--A recession is inevitable. Between a somewhat slowing real estate market, higher interest rates and trade wars, a slowdown is forthcoming. Careful budget planning is critical going forward. The Legislature should emphasize one-time spending rather than long term obligations.