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Idaho finds new way to figure the price tag of new laws

Idaho’s top legislative leaders have approved a new system for estimating the cost of proposed legislation on the state’s general fund.

In Idaho, bill sponsors are solely responsible for determining the financial impact of their legislation. There is no consequence if the estimated cost of a bill is wrong.

Furthermore, the Idaho Legislature does not track if legislation estimates are accurate, so it’s unknown how many bills may have incorrectly stated their fiscal impact, also known as a fiscal note inside the Statehouse.

Under the new pilot program, lawmakers would be assigned a designated legislative data analyst who would review the proposal and work with various state agencies to help come up with a correct dollar amount.

The program is strictly voluntary and essentially formalizes a process already available to bill sponsors. Lawmakers will still have access to Legislature’s data analysts for consultation even if they don’t go through the program.

“I think this will improve the quality of fiscal notes and the quality of the bill,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, who urged lawmakers to participate in the program. Rusche lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday and will not be returning to the Legislature in 2017.

The 14-member legislative council approved the project on Nov. 11, with just a handful of members opposing — including House Speaker Scott Bedke.

Bedke argued that lawmakers already have access to resources to secure an accurate fiscal estimate, adding that creating this entire system runs the risk of creating two-tiered system where one class of fiscal notes will be seen more credible than others.

Last year, legislative staffers identified 15 Legislature comparable to Idaho and found that the majority of them required some sort of third-party agency to draft the fiscal notes. Eleven of the states went a step further and also required outlining the fiscal impact on local governments; seven required that reporting any long-term impacts.

The Idaho Legislature introduces roughly 550 bills each year. Nearly 120 of those typically are state budget bills, where legislative budget staffers draft the fiscal notes. Another 100 of those are state agency bills, where agency staffers come up with their own fiscal note estimates.

That leaves roughly 300 bills where lawmakers are in charge of coming up with fiscal notes.

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