BOISE, Idaho -- The Idaho Legislature convenes Monday in Boise to divvy up a revenue boost and debate legislation, while maintaining what they hope will be an appealing appearance to a somewhat unknown set of voters in an election year.
District 6 legislators are predicting a short but busy legislative session with a larger emphasis on bipartisanship ahead of several contentious issues. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's proposal for a health insurance exchange is in the spotlight.
After several years of budget hardships, 2012 shows Idaho coming in above projected revenues with the potential to generate nearly $150 million by the end of June.
The Joint Finance Appropriations Committee will be processing numerous supplemental requests for education and health and welfare, among others.
"We have more money than we projected," said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who serves on JFAC. "And everybody has a good idea about how that should be used."
With that increase in revenues also comes speculation from District 6 legislators that lawmakers will likely tread lightly when it comes to proposing any new taxes, especially with Otter saying most will not make it past his desk.
Seizing on an optimistic financial outlook this session, Otter says he will propose a personal income tax rate reduction from 7.8 percent to 7.6 percent to help out small businesses across the state.
Ringo said that sounds good on the surface, but will likely mean seeking out other revenue sources later that could further damage agencies still recovering from strong cuts in the past.
"I just can't imagine with the cuts that we've already made, which has been so damaging, ... that it would be a good idea to cut revenue further."
In a campaign year, Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, said he doesn't expect any tax hikes coming out of the Legislature save maybe an increase in the tobacco tax. That measure, predicted to raise $50 million, failed last year, and if proposed this year would go toward supplementing Medicaid, which was cut by $35 million last session.
Ringo said she would support the measure, as would Trail, though he said it likely wouldn't pass.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, agreed, saying the bill would likely be killed by House leadership.
"They'll pound on their chests and tell their constituency, 'I voted for no new taxes,' " said Trail of conservative lawmakers, adding there will likely be a push to cut the corporate tax rate. "The drums are beating out there already."
Ringo said she is working with other lawmakers on an initiative to remove sales tax exemptions, long a major personal concern.
"It would bring in some revenues that we could use to fix some of the damage done to education ... and health and welfare," she said.
Health insurance exchange
If Idaho is going to establish its own exchange for buying health insurance, it will take the backing of the state's Democrat lawmakers, say District 6 legislators, as many conservatives have come out against it and the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that mandates it.
Idaho is one of 26 states seeking to overturn the act. Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court start March 26. A decision is expected in July.
"We're such a minority that occasionally such a hot topic comes along where our support is really needed to get it off the ground," said Ringo of Democrats' support for the exchange. "It could be that will be the issue."
The state would get $20.3 million in federal funding to start the exchange, but only if it agrees to the expenditure.
At issue is the constitutionality of requiring all citizens to buy health insurance. Under the act, states must have an exchange in place by 2014. Proponents of the exchange argue that if Idaho does not create its own, the federal government will establish one for it, which would likely be less appealing to the state.
Schmidt said making access to providers available online will make shopping for insurance easier on Idahoans and is a good move under the health care act.
"It makes good sense, and we're stuck on an ideological construct," he said. "I just don't see how that is a bad choice."
He said getting enough votes in the House, where conservative dissidence is brewing, could mean pulling support for a tobacco tax increase.
"It's going to provide a lot of help for the people that we're shortchanging now with our Medicaid cuts," said Ringo of the exchange. "They'll be getting the help that they need."
More money, more options
It could be holiday shopping that boosted revenues above projections, said Trail, adding an even bigger reason may be the Legislature's approval last session to hire auditors through the Idaho State Tax Commission. They were able to secure $45 million in taxes that hadn't been collected, he said.
Like Ringo, Trail said he wants to see renewed funding for Medicaid and public K-12 and higher education.
Funding for K-12 education has been cut by about $200 million since 2009, said Ringo.
The two lawmakers will seek to bring back funding for Idaho teachers who complete National Board Certification, she said, which means $2,000 annually for each educator for five years. She added she'd like to see that funding go longer.
"The classic one that we always underfund is the catastrophic health fund," said Ringo. "That's for indigent people that somehow fell through the cracks. The demand on that fund continues to grow."
Trail said he foresees the Legislature pushing to use surplus funds to replenish the state's reserve fund.
A $31 million question
Federal reimbursements for the state's Veterans Services costs are running a $31 million cash balance. The U.S. Veterans Administration pays for the full cost of services even if veterans also have part of the costs covered by Medicare and Medicaid.
What to do with this surplus has sprung up as an issue this year, although the fund was running a $12.6 million surplus as long ago as 2007.
"To me we should have discussed this two to three years ago," said Schmidt. "We didn't even discuss it last session ... Keeping it going toward veterans, I think, is appropriate. Veterans get care in other places than (state) veterans homes."
"Mental and physical health issues: we want to make sure that we're doing enough there," said Ringo. "We should put it to use."
While Idahoans will get to vote in a referendum on repealing three facets of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's 2011 education reform policy, the Legislature could throw out the laws before the election takes place.
Ringo said she would support tossing out the laws, which would restrict union bargaining rights, create teacher merit pay and take money from teachers' salaries and put it into technology, such as a new requirement that students take two online courses to graduate.
"To say no is the only way to get it reconsidered," she said, adding the public was never made aware of Luna's "Students Come First" reform plan until after his reelection. "He didn't share that with the voting public and I think people feel like it was something that was really strung on them."
During visits by Trail and Ringo to Latah County school districts, they heard mainly negative opinions of the reforms, plus consistent demands for local control when deciding education policy, said Ringo.
Trail said there is a plan to introduce legislation this session that effectively would do just that. He said it was ironic that a "predominately conservative" Legislature claiming support for local control would have passed a reform plan that did the opposite.
All legislators are awaiting decisions from the Idaho Supreme Court regarding suits over the second Redistricting Commission's plan for legislative districts to reflect changes in the 2010 U.S. Census figures.
The constitutionality or lack thereof for the new districts were argued before justices Thursday, with a decision pending.
Kootenai County and six others in north Idaho have also appealed the legislative map, which will be heard by the court later this month.
Trail said it will make campaigning difficult for legislators up for election this year until the court makes its decisions. There are only about two months left before candidates must file for office.
Until then, most legislators will be trying to appeal, at least in part, to an as yet unmet constituency, who could change again if the Supreme Court amends or throws out the new district maps.
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