Idaho could remake its welfare system in the coming legislative session, and it could find new answers for deteriorating schools and roads and crowded prisons.
It could extend a helping hand to its Indian tribes with a tax break, and give cities and counties long-sought flexibility to run their own affairs, including their tax systems.
But those are just proposals before the 1996 Idaho Legislature.
As the session kicks off Monday, lawmakers are being pulled in conflicting directions. Citizens want lower property taxes. They also want better schools. Tribes want economic development. Tribal neighbors fear unfair competition.
A legislative committee is proposing a gas tax hike and stiffer car registration fees to pay for road repairs. But it’s an election year, and tax increases are unpopular with voters.
North Idaho lawmakers’ roles in deciding the fate of these and other issues is uncertain. For the past five years, the north lacked a single committee chairman (now Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, will chair the Senate Education Committee). And although North Idaho’s economy traditionally has been resource-based, the Panhandle has just two of the 30 seats on the House and Senate resource committees.
“A lot of legislative clout comes from having seniority and being in the majority,” said political historian Randy Stapilus. For the past five years, North Idaho has been represented mainly by minority Democrats or freshman Republicans.
Rep. Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint, noted the influx of Republicans into the northern delegation in 1994 also meant a drop in seniority. “Part of their campaign was ‘we’ll be part of the majority party and we can get things done for North Idaho.’ That’s real nice.” But longer-serving lawmakers get the best committee spots. “You aren’t going to see any freshman chairmen.”
One issue that will test North Idaho lawmakers’ effectiveness is extending the ability to charge impact fees to cities and counties outside Ada County. Now, only Ada, where the state capitol stands, is allowed to charge the development fees to pay for growth.
Coeur d’Alene and Hayden both lost in court when they tried to impose the fees without the Legislature’s go-ahead.
A bipartisan push by the North Idaho legislative delegation last year failed. But this year, with cities from elsewhere around the state joining the push, chances look better.
“It’s a matter of fairness,” said Coeur d’Alene Mayor Al Hassell. “If one area of the state is able to do something, then all areas should be able to do the same thing.”
Hassell said Coeur d’Alene needs impact fees to keep growth from straining existing residents through higher property taxes.
“Each area of the state is different, and they should have the option of deciding how they want to handle their local problems,” he said.
Other major issues include:
Welfare reform. A task force appointed by the governor has developed a far-reaching plan to transform Idaho’s welfare system into a short-term program that pushes people to work. Proposed changes include a two-year limit on benefits, making grandparents on both sides responsible for their minor children’s babies, and requiring all welfare recipients - including new moms - to work or learn basic job skills. The state would help by providing child care.
“It appears to be hugely popular,” said Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden, a task force member. If Congress finishes up legislation allowing states to make such changes, “I think it’s a done deal legislatively,” he said.
Less certain is reform of Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor. It’s still not clear how Congress might change the rules and funding, so Idaho lawmakers are likely to delay consideration of changes until a special session next summer.
School construction. Local property taxpayers now foot the full bill for any new schools, and it takes a two-thirds vote to pass a school construction bond. With bonds failing across the state and school buildings crowded and deteriorating, House Speaker Mike Simpson, R-Blackfoot, is proposing that the state commit between $15 million and $25 million a year to school construction. The state money would match local bond money, making construction cheaper for taxpayers.
Three alternative bills set the state match at 20, 25 and 33.3 percent.
For Post Falls, which is considering double shifts, year-round schools or renting space in churches for its growing load of students, the idea sounds great.
“I’m very much in favor of some matching funds,” said Post Falls Superintendent Dick Harris.
In the past decade, Post Falls has built one school for 600 students. But it’s gained 1,200.
Roads. Idaho’s roads need billions of dollars in repairs, according to the latest studies. An interim legislative committee proposes a 4-cent increase in the gas tax and a 33 percent boost in vehicle registration fees to raise about $34 million a year to start fixing some crumbling roads. But that money won’t go far. U.S. Highway 95 alone needs $300 million in improvements and repairs.
Prisons. Idaho’s prison population is expected to double in the next six years. That means the state would have to spend $250 million to double its prison space. Gov. Phil Batt doesn’t want to, and has named a task force to come up with sentencing alternatives. Fifty-five percent of Idaho’s prison inmates are serving time for non-violent crimes, such as burglary and drug offenses.
Before naming the task force, Batt called the prison problem “this terrible black hole that’s taking all our money.”
The task force still was working on its recommendations last week, but expects to have legislation ready, possibly by next week.
Tribal economic development. North Idaho’s Kootenai Tribe has worked for three years to win a sales tax exemption for a tribal business, possibly a grocery store.
After an interim legislative committee degenerated into sniping between Bonners Ferry business people and tribal representatives, the committee voted 5-4 to push a bill that may give the tribe an exemption only if its lucrative gambling ventures are shut down by future court decisions.
Former state Sen. Skip Smyser, the tribe’s lobbyist, called the process “frustrating.”
Idaho’s tribes are facing a 31 percent cut in federal funding. When Idaho banned full-scale tribal casinos in 1992, it promised tribes a hand with other routes to self-sufficiency.
“But when it comes to trying to get it done, it appears much more in the way of words than actions,” Smyser said.
There’s more. The Legislature will decide how - or if - to change speed limits now that states are free to make that call. It’ll consider requiring farmers to carry worker’s compensation insurance on their farmhands, with a horrible farm accident in southeast Idaho last month looming over the discussion. Javier Tellez-Juarez lost both arms and one leg in the accident.
Bills on everything from requiring driving tests for senior citizens to allowing unmarked state police cars will be proposed.
There won’t be easy answers to the big questions.
“There are some darned-if-you-do and darned-if-you-don’t votes,” said Sen. Crow. “But we’re charged with doing something.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Photos and information for 15 legislators