Stephen Hartgen

It’s the heat of summer, but none too early for some look-ahead topics likely to be on legislators’ radar when they convene in Boise in a much-cooler January. Among the likely topics are tax proposals, the census-driven redistricting effort, and another attempt at tightening the initiative process.

A recent House legislators’ panel in Twin Falls is likely to be repeated in other parts of the state. If this first one is an indication, the crowd will be good and the questions challenging. That’s as it should be; American government at all levels today is marked by citizen participation. People are paying attention to what their elected representatives say and do.

Here are some of the topics covered and an early estimate on how they’re likely to be play out:

Tax increases? It’s an election year in 2020, so there’s zero chance legislators will approve any tax increases or even major upward tinkering. If there’s one consistent thing the Legislature doesn’t do, it’s raise taxes in an election year.

Lower taxes? Yep, that’s always on the agenda. This year, property tax relief is likely in the form of raising the homeowner’s exemption above the current $100,000 valuation limit, or simply letting the exemption extend its 50 percent limit to full valuation, effectively giving further property tax relief.

Local government entities, particularly cities and counties, want local option tax authority to raise taxes on their citizens, but that’s again probably dead on arrival in the Legislature; members don’t favor giving more taxing power to local government, which seems now to be “out of control” on spending. Legislators won’t turn over the henhouse keys to the ever-hungry foxes looking to further de-feather the birds.

Removing sales tax on groceries?  Always a topic of discussion, but its impact is often overstated. A family of five would have to spend over $8,000 a year on groceries to surpass today’s deductions.  Also, the top two “food items” taxed today are sugary drinks and snack foods, items many medical professionals cite as the cause of many underlying health conditions.

Redistricting? The 2020 Census will show enormous population growth in Idaho over the past decade, but it’s uneven. The state’s largest communities are growing, but remote, rural regions are languishing. One early legislative effort likely will be to add a seventh member to the six-member Redistricting Commission to better reflect Idaho’s party alignments, now split 80-20 in legislative seats in Republican dominance.

Democrats will fight this at every turn and try to make it a referendum on Republicans and on President Trump, who will also be on the ballot. Good luck with that. Trump carried Idaho by a wide margin in 2016 and will do so again in 2020. (In Twin Falls County, he swamped Hillary Clinton 3.5 to one, 20,000 votes to 6,000.)

In past redistricting cycles, the minority party hasn’t been able to turn Idaho away from its bright-red politics, and isn’t likely to do so in the future except in the few Democratic enclaves known as Bernie Sanders/Paulette Jordan-landia. That’s because Idaho is generally attracting more conservative “escapees” from more liberal states, a demographic trend unlikely to be reversed.  

In any case, redistricting is sure to be on legislators’ agenda. House Speaker Scott Bedke told the forum it’s a top-of-mind item; you can take that as a good predictive bet.

Initiative reform? Gov. Brad Little’s veto brought an end to legislative efforts in 2019 to tighten Idaho’s initiative process, but legislators at the forum made it clear they’ll take another look. Proposed changes may have been a “Bridge Too Far” for the governor and some legislators, but there’s general agreement that the process is being gamed by outside money and that it is tilted toward urban counties.

Crafting an acceptable bill shouldn’t be rocket science, so expect this to move forward, with loud whining again from the back-benchers and the pressies.

University diversity? Programs may get some attention but it’s far from clear legislators want to micro-manage Idaho’s public universities. Still, there’ll discussion on whether “Dreamer” illegal student aliens should be eligible for state-supported scholarships, and perhaps some discussion of legislative oversight of university presidential selections and Board of Education appointments.

Abortion? Far-rights will try again to legally define abortion as murder and thereby lead to prosecutions of both doctors and women patients.  Even hard-nosed legislators seem unlikely to pass a law to bring murder charges against teen-age and young adult women in this situation. More likely would be legislation to prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

Incarceration reform? Expect to see legislation to help reduce Idaho’s surging prison population by reducing recidivism with better, and earlier, in-prison life skills and job training. Tinkering with Idaho’s minimum sentencing laws is also a possibility as a way to reduce incarcerations, but removing them entirely, as some lefties and pot-supporting libertarians want to do, isn’t likely.

Marijuana legalization? Along those lines, marijuana legalization may be rolled up, but Idaho isn’t likely to approve legalizing weed, despite a push from liberals and pot-friendly, backwoods Libertarians. For most, it’s still a “puff dragon too far” for Idaho.

Stephen Hartgen is a retired five-term Republican state legislator from Twin Falls, where he served on the House Revenue & Taxation Committee and was chairman of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005) and a member of Idaho Capitol Commission. He can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.