This session the Idaho legislature will confront several important issues in the absence of an election year. Long time legislators such as former Senate Education Committee Chair John Goedde will be absent to help the legislature tackle the issue of education. A slate of new Chairman with barely more than a term of experience will also heavily influence the session.
Partisan debates should not define the session. Democrats gained a mere seat last year and they do not control a single statewide constitutional office. The only issues where partisanship will come into play should be Medicaid Expansion, Add the Words legislation and Tiered Licensure funding (accountability vs. teacher salaries).
This session will offer something to legislators, longtime and new, that has not been an option since before 2008. A growing economy and revenue will offer the legislature a chance shore up Idaho’s most pressing funding need, education. How the legislature does so and to what extent remains to be seen.
In an effort to get out ahead on the issue Senate Pro Tempore Brent Hill predicted a “good year” for education. Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway said his committee will not consider any tax cuts this session until education is “properly funded.” This sets up a showdown between the powerful pro tax cut Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI) and legislative leadership. So without further ado here are the top five issues the legislature will confront this session (ranked in order of importance).
1. Education: Since the Luna Laws were repealed in 2012 much has changed. Most of the repealed Luna Law reforms were re-implemented by the legislature in 2013 and 2014, Common Core has shifted the state’s curriculum emphasis and the State Board of Education most recently passed a new pay scale and accountability requirements. The new pay scale and accountability requirements are rules but they can be repealed by the legislature.
The legislature’s biggest issue is funding the new pay scale. It won’t be cheap. The new pay scale calls for two professional tiers for teachers with different pay rates and accountability requirements. According to the State Board the new pay scale will cost the state over $60 million for new teachers and $250 million for all teachers. The funding mechanism is based on growing state revenue. Buried in the rule passed by the SBOE is a clause that states the new tiered certification and accountability requirements go into effect only if the legislature increases teacher salaries. Thus, for Idaho’s educational system to be reformed the legislature MUST fund the new pay scale.
So far many in the legislature seem eager to fund the new pay scale and the accountability requirements that go with it. However, funding these reforms by themselves do little to address Idaho’s educational woes relating to many districts relying on supplemental levies. Since 2009 the legislature has cut $83 million from the education budget. Last year the legislature covered $35 million of the cuts. But, it is unclear whether the legislature will increase the education budget to the tune of $48 million and even this would only get us back to 2008 funding levels that do not account for student population growth from 2009-2014. Thus, supplemental levies will continue to be used my many districts into the near future.
2. Ethics: No other issue than education was more important in the 2014 gubernatorial election than ethics. Specifically, Governor Otter was hammered over his dealings with Corrections Corporation of America and its overcharging Idaho for staffing needs at state prisons. Otter’s explanation of his role in the ultimate settlement did not help either. As a result, many in the legislature seem eager to address the issue, particularly the minority party.
However, there is also an appetite for reform among many Republicans. In 2013 the legislature began implementing reforms including requiring new members to take a freshman orientation that included ethics rules. Still, whatever reforms are implemented this session are likely to be modest. Until an actual scandal occurs it is unlikely enough momentum will be created for much more change than window dressing.
3. Medicaid Expansion: Some can argue with my placement of Medicaid Expansion as a top five issue. The issue has much more salience among the minority party in the legislature than the majority. Still, clear of electoral concerns and with a growing number of GOP Governors embracing expansion nationwide Governor Otter might request funding for it in his budget. If he does so the fireworks are sure to follow.
Otter’s 2013 request for funding for the state’s online Healthcare Exchange split the Republican Party down the middle. The State Party opposed such a move as did the Central Committee. Expanding Medicaid would surely do the same and Democrats could actually find themselves delivering the votes for passage.. Otter never said he would ask for it during the 2014 campaign but just like on the Add the Words issue he did not close the door on it either.
The Governor has explored the idea in the past. Indeed, a state commissioned study found that expanding Medicaid would increase insurance coverage to over 70,000 Idahoans and significantly increase state revenues. However, it should be noted the study is a few years out of date.
4. Transportation: Idaho’s roads are in a dismal state. Some estimated that Idaho’s roads require $260 million in repairs and expansion. Nobody should expect that large a sum to come out of the 2014 legislature but new revenue may be shunted to DOT to confront the issue.
Transportation funding has a rich history in Idaho. In 2006, then Governor Risch managed to get legislators to agree to gas tax increase by shifting education funding from income to sales tax revenue. In 2009, Governor Otter tried to get the legislature to agree to a tax increase to fund transportation and his efforts were soundly rejected.
Otter has not given up. He has made noise about creating a variety of new fees to aid road repairs. One has riled up the trucking industry which sees itself as being unfairly targeted for infrastructure needs. The problem may be compounded by the falling price of gas which means more driving and road usage and increased population density in the Treasure Valley. Thus, this issue may become more and more important beyond this session.
5. Add the Words: Many of a certain political persuasion will disagree with my placing of this issue as number five. But it is. The issue does not include money but rather values. During the 2014 campaign Governor Otter agreed with the idea that Add the Words legislation should be given a hearing in the legislature. He went even further and said he would sign such legislation if it landed on his desk. Yet, the Governor has spent over $400,000 defending the state’s Constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Idaho’s legislature, even with its libertarian Republican and socially liberal Democratic contingents, is unlikely to send such a bill to the Governor’s desk this session unless it includes a controversial religious freedom component. This component caused a ruckus last session when critics said it would lead to not just lead to the LBGT community being disenfranchised based on religious grounds but also state agency requirements (ie. like paying taxes).
The Add the Words movement may simply score success by being able to make its case before the legislature in a public fashion. The effort has wide support in Boise but outside that and Sun Valley the movement has found little traction. Getting a forum among legislators could help change that.