BOISE – Idaho’s headed for a different kind of legislative session in January, one marked less by painful budget cuts and more by political and philosophical battles, key lawmakers said Thursday.
“Actually we have 105 game plans, folks,” Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference on Thursday, which traditionally serves as something of a warmup for Idaho’s legislative session.
105? That’s the number of legislators who serve in both houses, “everyone running their own plays,” Hill said. “And then we’ve got a bunch of you folks out there calling in plays from the sideline.”
That brought laughter from the audience of more than 400, which included lawmakers, lobbyists, business people, state and local government officials and more.
While recent sessions of the Idaho Legislature have focused on making deep and controversial budget cuts, including to schools and Health and Welfare programs, revenue figures are looking promising enough that this year’s session likely will focus on what to restore or how to spend the extra, rather than what to cut.
“I think we’ve seen the bottom of additional cuts, and we’ll start climbing out now as the economy improves, but it’s going to be slow,” Hill said.
Legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith ran through all the numbers and said under current estimates, assuming a conservative 3 percent growth in state tax revenues, lawmakers will be deciding how to spend a $77 million surplus. “This looks pretty good, doesn’t it? It looks a lot better than it has,” she said.
House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “The good news is that we are growing.” He said it’s “going to take us probably several years to climb out of where we have been.”
Idaho lawmakers are expected to tangle this year over the question of funding a health insurance exchange and whether to accept part or all of the $20 million in federal funding for it that Idaho has just been awarded. The state is among a group suing to overturn the national health care reform law, which provides the funds, and some lawmakers dislike the idea of taking the federal money, though Republican Gov. Butch Otter supports it. But if Idaho doesn’t set up an exchange, the federal government will take over and establish one for it.
The issue “is going to be a very serious discussion this year,” Denney said. “Boy, I have mixed feelings. … It’s going to be one of those debates that just tears you up.”
Hill said the legislative session likely will include discussion of hot-button issues that came up last year, including guns on campus, state nullification of federal laws and possible tax cuts.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, noted that it’ll be an election year, with every seat in the Legislature up for election, the filing period for legislative candidates starting in the midst of the session and Idaho’s first closed Republican primary looming in May.
“I think it’s going to be very disrupting,” he said. “Everybody will be trying to get to the right of somebody else because of the closed Republican primary. I think we’ll see (bills about) guns, we’ll see abortion, we’ll see nullification. If it plays in somebody’s district, we’ll hear a wolf bill.”
Rusche said political posturing could impede progress on key decisions, like how much to replenish Idaho’s drained rainy-day funds and whether to reverse cuts in areas like mental health and substance abuse treatment that he said “are going to cost us big-time.”
Idaho’s legislative session starts Jan. 9.