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The good, the bad, the unnecessary with the 2021 Legislature

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Mat Erpelding

The 2021 Legislative session is a wrap. And, as is the case every year, the business community has issues to celebrate, to lament and to “wonder why they did that.” The Boise Metro Chamber was deeply engaged on policy issues, including taxation, transportation infrastructure, education, and the balance of powers throughout the legislative session.

The successes

This year, the legislature addressed transportation and infrastructure by allocating about $80 million a year to the Idaho Transportation Department to bond with for transportation expansion and congestion mitigation projects. Additionally, as the state’s sales tax revenue grows, our local highway districts will see increased revenue for local roads and bridges. These two solutions address longstanding problems related to Idaho’s infrastructure.

Additionally, the corporate and individual income tax rates were lowered from 6.925% to 6.5% percent using a fund established to provide broad-based tax relief. The tax reforms used a dedicated fund established in 2019 and statutorily held for that purpose. This design protects other budgets and provides the legislature tools for future reforms. 

From the Chamber’s perspective, these issues will improve our state’s economy and prepare our infrastructure for continued growth. Finally, legislative leaders extended liability protections to businesses for the next year to protect businesses from lawsuits arising from COVID-19.

The bad

It started with discussions about diversity and related issues and ended with budget cuts. The business community is disappointed that the Legislature did not approve a $6 million grant to expand access to early childhood education. And, on the other end of the learning continuum, the Legislature cut higher education budgets to make a political statement to universities for teaching about history and how decisions of the past impact people today. In a year when the Legislature was flush with resources, it chose to decrease school funding and not address two areas of “human infrastructure” because of what many felt were unfounded claims of educational “indoctrination.”

Leaving a $6 million grant for early childhood education on the table holds back the progress of some of Idaho’s most vulnerable kids. Idaho remains the only state in the nation without funding for early childhood education. And, while our universities will adapt to the cuts, the damage extends beyond the immediate funding concerns. Instead, the negative narrative about post-high school educational opportunities will have a lasting negative impact on our state’s go-on rates at a time when workforce development and career placement remain a top priority for businesses in Idaho.

The unnecessary

After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, our state is beginning to reopen. As many on both sides of the aisle acknowledge, Gov. Brad Little and his administration steered Idaho through one of the most turbulent times in U.S. history.  Our state is emerging from the pandemic in a position to lead the country in economic growth.

The Legislature, however, engaged in a largely unsuccessful, four-month-long struggle to remove emergency powers from the executive branch. It passed several pieces of legislation that would make statewide emergencies its prerogative, including a constitutional amendment that will appear on the ballot in 2022. If voters pass it, legislative leaders will be able to call themselves back to Boise when they deem it necessary, paving the way for a potential full-time Legislature. 

While some valuable items of legislation will strengthen Idaho’s business community, other tangential efforts appeared to distract the legislature from more practical and pressing issues.

Mat Erpelding is vice president, government and community relations for the Boise Metro Chamber.

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