North Idaho legislators say they’re ready to fight for a fairer share of the state pie in the legislative session that convenes Monday.
Ten of the 12 Panhandle lawmakers who will gather in Boise are members of the Republican majority, a full turnaround from 1992, when 14 of 15 North Idaho legislators were Democrats.
In a Legislature where 85 percent of the members are Republican, that gives the northerners entry into the majority party caucuses. But with the seniority system still holding sway, the group of mostly newcomers still holds no committee chairmanships and no Republican party leadership posts.
“I can’t change things overnight,” admits new Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “But I think there’s some fresh energy, a different approach.”
North Idaho lawmakers have long pushed for a re-examination of the formulas the state uses to dole out tax revenues to local communities, saying the Panhandle hasn’t gotten its fair share.
They may get a boost this year, because members from other parts of the state are raising similar concerns about the formulas.
“It’s something we need to start debating,” said House Speaker Mike Simpson, R-Blackfoot.
Simpson said he wonders about the cost of growth, where the tax revenues from growth go and who has to provide the services.
Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University political scientist, said in many cases, revenues from growth flow to the state in sales and income taxes. But they don’t come back.
“They benefit the state general fund, but do not directly benefit the local governments who provide the infrastructure that serves the development.”
But Weatherby said it’s difficult to change the formulas that distribute the money unless it’s a year when the amount grows. That’s the only way all sides can see the changes as fair.
And this is expected to be a tight budget year.
Nevertheless, interest in at least studying the formulas could boost North Idaho’s efforts to ensure fairness.
“All those formulas need to be looked at,” said Simpson.
How state tax money should be divided is one of many issues lawmakers will face this year. Here are some others:
Idaho is adding 400 prison inmates a year. Last year, Gov. Phil Batt determined that Idahoans don’t want lighter sentences. But plans to build a new 1,000-bed prison in Boise have stalled for two years for lack of cash, and the state has resorted to the expensive alternative of shipping hundreds of inmates out of state.
A possible solution has emerged, thanks to changes in the prison industry across the country: hiring a private firm to build and run the prison. If the per-inmate daily fee can be negotiated down far enough, the state could get a free prison.
But it also could get a big, scary headache: making sure the private firm does the job correctly. After all, the state-run maximum-security prison just had two inmates escape last month.
New federal laws deregulating the telecommunications business mean Idaho has to pass some laws of its own. The result could change what everyone pays for telephone service.
The idea is to allow various companies to compete to offer local telephone service. But since only one network goes to people’s homes, the new federal law requires existing firms to sell access to their networks to any competitor, at a discount. That doesn’t thrill the existing telephone companies, who say they’ve kept basic residential rates low by subsidizing them with other services, like long-distance.
So now basic residential rates could go way up and other rates could drop.
Legislative proposals are in the works from US West, from a group that includes AT&T;, and from the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. There’ll be plenty of lobbyists working the halls on this complicated issue.
Property tax relief
The One Percent Initiative to limit property taxes failed by nearly a 2-1 vote. Again. But many legislators elected this year ran on promises to fight for property tax relief. So there are likely to be lots of proposals for shifting taxes from one source to another.
Batt says he wants only some modest tinkering with the system, but has signaled he might support limits on the year-to-year increases in assessments that have incensed North Idaho property owners, and also might support extending the 3 percent limit he imposed on increases in tax budgets to apply to school districts, which now are exempt.
This issue has particular resonance in North Idaho, because Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary and Benewah counties all voted in favor of the One Percent Initiative. Only one other county in the state favored the initiative, and Owyhee County’s support was slim - a seven-vote margin.
On another front, Kootenai County stands a good chance of getting $1 million or so in property tax relief this year if the state picks up another chunk of North Idaho College’s costs.
Idaho still makes it harder to build a school than any other state, by requiring a two-thirds vote for school construction bonds and sending the whole bill to local property taxpayers. Last year, the state talked about coming up with some matching money. But lawmakers couldn’t find the money.
This year, Robert Huntley, the lawyer and former Supreme Court justice who’s leading a lawsuit by school districts against the state, has offered this solution: If Idaho cut half of the exemptions from its sales tax, it could afford to drop the sales tax to 4 cents and also have matching money for school buildings.
But Statehouse politics make tax exemptions hard to cut in Idaho.
If the Legislature does nothing, a court could order it to get moving when the lawsuit goes to trial next year.
Batt is trying the same approach to Medicaid reform that he took with welfare reform: He named a committee that held extensive hearings across the state, studied the system and came up with a plan. With Medicaid, his group studied everything from Hawaii’s universal-care plan to Oregon’s rationing ideas. Its plan focuses on offering only the level of care that is necessary, removing duplication and cutting fraud. The problem is, many of the Medicaid changes that the group came up with require changes in federal law.
Still, some changes will come up in the Legislature this year. Among them: Requiring all Idaho colleges and universities to offer pregnancy coverage for students and their dependents, and requiring students to buy it as a condition of enrollment. In 1995, Medicaid paid for 37 percent of all births in Idaho.
U.S. Highway 95
Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, last year proposed a statewide bonding program to repair and improve Highway 95 to a minimum standard from one end of the state to the other. Kellogg and John Goedde of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce wowed a legislative committee with the chamber’s plan last year, but ended up having to defer to another road-repair plan tied to a gas tax increase. They’ve been meeting again to come up with another proposal this year.
There’s lots more. From proposals to reform Idaho’s permissive campaign-finance laws to a plan to allow citizens to track local sex offenders, lawmakers will consider hundreds of changes in Idaho laws.
But everything they do will be “framed by the budget,” Simpson said. State revenues were so slim this year that Batt imposed a 2 percent across-the-board cut midyear.
Between the tight budget and the majority party’s desire to limit government growth, legislative creativity could be crimped.
Said Simpson, “It’s going to be dang tight, I think.”
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