Gov. Dirk Kempthorne proposed $1.6 billion in road construction around the state, including major upgrades for U.S. Highway 95, financed by bonds issued against future federal highway allocations.
What happened: The governor’s proposal, SB 1183, passed the Senate overwhelmingly, but cleared the House only on the last day of the fourth-longest session in state history, after Kempthorne vetoed eight bills and declared all House bills “veto fodder” if the plan didn’t move forward. In the end, the House added amendments including a floating cap on annual expenditures, but those were largely cosmetic, and the sweeping highway plan emerged intact. Idaho will now work to complete 30 years worth of road construction in the next decade, including a freeway from Coeur d’Alene to Sandpoint.
Idaho faced two huge water issues this legislative session: approval of a water rights agreement settling claims by the Nez Perce Tribe to virtually all the water in the Snake River; and an effort to avoid a shutoff of thousands of water rights in Southern Idaho, where years of drought have pitted two competing groups of Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer water users against each other.
What happened: After extensive hearings at which hundreds testified, the Legislature passed three bills ratifying the Nez Perce agreement and the governor signed them into law. Two days before the March 31 deadline, the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee also ratified the deal, on a 6-2 vote, the last step needed for it to take effect. On the Eastern Snake Plain issue, three complicated bills dealing with groundwater districts, fees, assessments and bonds and a funding bill that included both a multimillion-dollar settlement and funding for North Idaho water projects passed both houses – with the funding bill the very last bill to be approved for the legislative session.
Budget and taxes
Idaho is required to have a balanced budget, and its sales tax is scheduled to drop from 6 percent to 5 percent on July 1, trimming close to $180 million a year from the state’s tax revenues.
What happened: Legislative budget writers have set a $2.18 billion budget for the state for next year, a 4.7 percent increase, which was slightly below Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s $2.22 billion recommendation, which called for a 6 percent increase. State employees aren’t slated to get any raises at all, unless the year-end budget balance for the state at the end of this year is at least $22.3 million more than current projections show will be there. Then, if that money does show up, they’d get just a one-time bonus averaging 1 percent, distributed by merit. Lawmakers also passed significant tax breaks for businesses, including the governor’s corporate headquarters tax incentive package, a scaled-down version of those incentives for small employers who add as few as 10 new jobs, a $7 million sales tax exemption requested by Micron Technology Corp., and a $3.2 million alternate energy generation equipment sales tax exemption. No property tax relief legislation passed; instead, an interim legislative committee will be appointed to look into that issue.
Education is the top issue in Idaho in virtually every poll. It’s also the single largest slice of the state’s general fund budget.
What happened: Public schools got a 2.3 percent funding increase, from $964.7 million this year to $987.1 million next year. Colleges and universities got just a 1.5 percent increase. Legislation also passed to allow tuition to be charged at any state college or university except the University of Idaho, where the Idaho Constitution prohibits it. Legislation to shift funding for a state program that partially subsidizes school construction bond interest failed in the Senate, and that program continues to be funded with money that school districts otherwise would have received for other purposes. A lawsuit challenging Idaho’s school construction funding as inadequate goes before the Idaho Supreme Court this summer.
Both the Idaho Constitution and Idaho Open Meeting Law require open legislative meetings, but lawmakers have held several closed-door committee meetings in recent years and majority Republicans hold closed-door caucuses.
What happened: The Idaho Press Club has filed an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court in its lawsuit over closed meetings of legislative committees. A 4th District judge earlier ruled against the club’s claim that the Idaho Constitution requires the committee meetings to be open to the public, ruling instead that only the formal floor sessions in each house of the Legislature are constitutionally required to be open.
In response to the lower court’s ruling, the Senate amended its rules to allow any committee meeting to be closed at any time, for any reason. No closed committee meetings were held this year, but majority caucuses in both houses held closed-door meetings on topics including the state budget, while the minority caucuses in both houses held open meetings.
The federal-state program that provides health coverage for disabled and poor Idahoans has been growing faster than any other part of the state budget.
What happened: After months of intensive study and long hearings by a variety of committees and subcommittees, lawmakers set a budget for Medicaid that adds $10 million above the governor’s recommendation to cover expected increases in caseloads. That brings next year’s Medicaid budget to $331.3 million in state general tax funds, a 15 percent increase, and $1.2 billion overall, including the federal funds that match the state dollars. The decision came after every other piece of the state Health and Welfare budget was closely scrutinized and various savings were targeted, to allow more money to go into medical care.
A plan to expand family-planning services to more low-income families, in an effort to cut long-term Medicaid costs, passed the Senate but died in a House committee.