The priorities of Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Legislature may not completely mesh, based on press conferences the governor and legislative leadership had in the Idaho Statehouse on Jan. 3 and Jan 6.
While the emphasis from the governor was primarily on public education, the Legislature is more focused on cutting property taxes and setting legislative rules.
“It is important to remember that many of the governor’s proposals will need the Legislature’s approval,” said Jaclyn Kettler, assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, in an email message.
The first job of the Legislature each session is to approve rules that agencies implemented over the interim, something that no other state legislature does. Last year’s Legislature failed to pass the “drop dead” bill, which continues rules to the next year, meaning the Legislature has to approve all the rules this year.
The increased number of rules may mean that the rules approval process could take a couple extra weeks, said Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the president pro tem.
The bottleneck last year had to do with changing the rules approval process. Right now, only one body of the Legislature has to approve a rule for it to go into effect. Last year, the House wanted both bodies to approve a rule for it to go into effect, while the Senate wanted to maintain the current system. Hill said that while that issue could be revisited during this legislative session, it wouldn’t affect the rules that need to be approved this year.
Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said his highest priority was to get that rules debate straightened out and indicated that a compromise was in the works, but wouldn’t provide details.
Discussion before the legislative session, including an interim working group, focused on reducing property taxes, with legislators mentioning possible solutions including capping the ability of cities and counties to increase their budgets, allowing school districts to impose impact fees on new growth, increasing the circuit breaker provisions for senior citizens and reimplementing the index on the homeowner’s exemption from property taxes, which was capped at $100,000 in a previous session.
But changing guidelines on any property taxes could have unintended consequences, legislators and the governor agreed. Setting up a new system based on Boise or Ada County might not work in more rural counties that aren’t growing so fast, they said.
Without reducing property taxes, Idaho could run the risk of a citizen’s initiative along the lines of California’s Proposition 13, Bedke said. That proposition essentially froze property taxes for homeowners as long as they stayed in the same house.
Last year’s Legislature put forth bills to make such an initiative more difficult, but they were vetoed by Little. Legislators didn’t say whether they planned similar actions this session, but Hill and Bedke said that if citizens were writing bills, they should require statements of purpose and fiscal impact notes like bills written by legislators do.
In some cases, Little provided a dollar figure in his budget but left the actual policy implementation up to the Legislature. For example, while he called for $35 million to lower the grocery tax, how that might actually be implemented is a policy decision.
The $35 million isn’t enough to fill the gap in the budget caused by eliminating the grocery tax entirely, but it could be used to increase the grocery tax credit, Bedke said. In fact, the Legislature might even bump the amount up to $40 million, he said.
Using it to increase the grocery tax credit would benefit Idahoans, who receive the grocery tax credit when they file their state income taxes, while still charging the grocery tax to out-of-staters, Bedke said. The increase would amount to about $175 in groceries each month, he said. In addition, increasing the grocery tax credit could reduce the grocery tax revenue to the point where it could be eliminated in future years, he said.