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Health coverage, road projects among priorities for Idaho Legislature

 (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
(Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – When the Idaho Legislature convenes on Monday, it’ll be divided between those who want to address the state’s long-festering health coverage gap, and those who say there’s too much uncertainty at the federal level to change anything now. But there are other big issues on lawmakers’ plates as well, some with big stakes. Here are five to watch for:

Education

This will be the top issue of the session. There’s the looming $58 million annual cost for the next phase of the state’s five-year plan to boost teacher salaries and improve schools; Gov. Butch Otter’s new proposal for a task force to lay out a similar multi-year plan to improve higher education in the state; minority Democrats’ push for some state funding for early-childhood education, long a non-starter in the Idaho Legislature; and a big controversy over problems in the teacher evaluation system that’s tied to the teacher pay plan.

“These are not insurmountable problems,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. But they’re big ones. “We’ve got to stop jerking the teachers around here,” he said.

Taxes and surplus

With a budget surplus mounting, lawmakers are divided over what to do with it. Boost spending for needs like transportation and health care? Sock away the surplus in state savings accounts to hedge against the next downturn? Or maybe hand out tax cuts. Particularly in the House, many majority Republicans favor tax cuts, but Otter has made it clear he won’t propose any himself. Those with a sense of history will recall that when former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne bowed to legislative pressure to cut taxes with a big one-time state surplus in the early 2000s, the economy tanked and two years later lawmakers had to raise the sales tax to avoid drastic cuts to schools.

Transportation

Idaho has been struggling for years with a mounting backlog of road and bridge maintenance and construction, and though Otter made it his top issue several years running, lawmakers never agreed to big funding boosts for roads. That changed to some extent two years ago, with a 7-cent gas tax increase and a two-year “surplus eliminator” that divided any unexpected state surplus equally between road projects and state savings accounts. That’s now expired, and Otter is pointing to the remaining nearly $200 million annual backlog the state faces for road maintenance.

“It’s been my long-held position, and I think a lot of the members of the Legislature agree with me, that deferred maintenance is deficit spending,” Otter said Friday. But he also voiced opposition to the solution advanced by House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian – diverting a piece of the state’s general fund for roads, putting transportation into competition with schools, health care and other needs that rely on the general fund. Otter said sticking with the more traditional road funding sources – gas taxes and vehicle registration fees – gives Idaho the kind of “user-pay” system he favors.

Court access

In a 3-2 ruling this fall, the Idaho Supreme Court launched the state’s court system on a new track in which most Idahoans who lose in court would have to pay the winning side’s attorney fees. Justice Roger Burdick, in a dissent, said the ruling will “further inhibit access to justice and tilt the table even further toward moneyed interests in our courts,” and will “chill litigation;” he became chief justice last week. The justices set a March 1 start date for the new loser-pay rule. That gives the Legislature a chance to change the law before it takes effect, and several attorney-lawmakers say they’re already looking at possible changes. “I think that was a pretty clear message to give the Legislature an opportunity to do something,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chair Todd Lakey, R-Nampa.

Campaign finance reform

Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney is planning to propose a series of campaign finance reforms this year, including increasing penalties for violations from $250 to $2,500, requiring online filing of all campaign finance reports – which could finally make them searchable – and other changes. Interestingly, Denney says the changes were inspired by a voter initiative sponsored by former Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, his Democratic challenger when he ran for secretary of state two years ago. Denney, a former GOP House speaker, said he liked many of Woodings’ ideas, though he’s modifying some of them. Her initiative narrowly failed to draw enough signatures to make the ballot.

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