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This session will be about investment in Idaho, legislative leaders say

By Kelcie Moseley-Morris Idaho Capital Sun

After the longest legislative session in Idaho history in 2021, House and Senate leadership expressed hope on Friday that the 2022 session will be efficient and productive and an opportunity for the Legislature to address education, tax relief and other issues in meaningful ways.

Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said at a legislative preview event at the Idaho Capitol that the state’s record $1.6 billion surplus presents a budgeting opportunity similar to what a family would do with an influx of money, by being proactive with road and bridge infrastructure, water quality infrastructure and targeted investments in education.

“You pay off any debts you have, you fix the things you’ve been stalling on fixing and kicking down the road,” Bedke said. “Idaho is at a crossroads. We are the fastest growing state in the union, population-wise and economically, and so it’s going to put some pressure on our infrastructure … including our school systems. And I think that this session will be about fixing some of that stuff.”

Senate Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said some of the debt Idaho pays off using surplus funds should be supplemental levies for schools, which totaled $220 million statewide during the 2021 fiscal year. He said property tax relief should be top of mind as well.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said any tax relief will likely be welcomed by the public, but he has heard from some that they’d rather see the money go elsewhere.

“It’s interesting that some of the public is saying, ‘No, I don’t really want tax relief, I’d rather see you put the money into roads and schools and do the deferred maintenance things that need to be done to keep our state and our universities and colleges running properly,’ ” Winder said. “So that’s going to be the debate, is how best to do that.”

Grocery tax repeal could still be a hot topic this session

The legislators also said they expect the grocery tax could be a subject of debate again this year, after attempts to eliminate the grocery tax have repeatedly failed by a narrow margin in recent legislative sessions. Winder said it’s important to keep in mind that one of the only taxes tourists and people with second homes in Idaho pay is the grocery tax, and it would be important to know how the revenue would be replaced, particularly if other tax relief is also on the table.

Bedke said the rhetoric around the grocery tax repeal idea always leaves out the fact that Idaho has a grocery tax credit, and that credit can be raised if necessary. But there isn’t a good solution to replace the revenue currently if the tax was repealed altogether.

“I understand how sexy it is to take the sales tax off of food, but we have created a system now that takes the effects of taxing food on Idahoans off of Idahoans through the credit system,” Bedke said. “… To throw this issue out just for the strength of the demagoguery that you can have in a political year is folly when it comes to policy.”

Will this be a yearlong session of the Idaho Legislature? Probably not, but options are open

The Legislature’s 2021 session was the longest in state history after the House of Representatives chose to recess until later in the year rather than adjourn until January. Legislators convened again in November for a short session where no bills passed both chambers, costing taxpayers $46,000 for the extra days. Bedke said he doesn’t expect a repeat of last year’s session, but he left open the possibility that the Legislature could recess again rather than adjourn, particularly if COVID-19 cases spike in the building and become an issue.

“If we lose critical people or critical stuff, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Bedke said. “So we’ve got to leave ourselves some options.”

Winder said he wants to make sure the Legislature remains part-time, but said a constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in November that would allow the Legislature to call itself back into session is important.

“We’re one of only 14 states that can’t have some way of calling themselves back into session,” Winder said. “And in the first year of this COVID emergency and the things that were going on, the Legislature had a role that it could’ve and should’ve played.”

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