TOP LEGISLATIVE ISSUES 2007
results are in! Our 2007 issues will be:
In addition to looking at proposals that come up on these issues
in the 2007 session, our members endorsed taking a longer-term, proactive approach
to three issues:
- K-12 Education
- Tax Exemptions and Credits
Since K-12 education and healthcare were picked as both short and
long-term issues, we'll watch developments on these issues in this year's legislature.
If there are important, specific proposals coming forward, we'll brief and poll
on them. Otherwise, we'll take time to develop a brief that looks at promising
policy options that haven't necessarily been considered by the Legislature.
This year we'll also brief and poll on overcrowded prisons, which
we chose as an issue last year.
We will develop briefing materials on three issues that
come before the Legislature in the upcoming session. Short descriptions of 25
of the most important issues likely to come before the legislature are provided
below. We ask that you rate how important it is for us to develop full briefing
materials on each issue. The three issues with the highest average ratings will
be those for which we develop briefing materials. Each member of The Common
Interest will be randomly assigned to review the briefing materials for one
of the three selected issues and then share their views.
We developed the list of issues by inviting the input of more than twenty legislators
and members of the press. The issues are listed in order from the issue most
frequently identified by these 20-plus individuals to the least frequently identified.
If particular issues seem especially well or poorly-suited for The Common Interest,
we note this in bold, italicized text at the conclusion of the description.
For three issues (K-12 education, health care, and tax exemptions) we ask you
to consider whether it would be advisable for us to take a longer-term, more
proactive approach than the one we usually take.
Note that you need to login in order to open the questionnaire
where you rate the importance of us briefing and polling each issue. You can
login by clicking on the login link at the top of this page. Once you login,
the link at the top of the page will become a link to open the questionnaire.
You have 90 minutes to complete the questionnaire after you login before the
website times you out. You should see a confirmation page once you submit your
answers. You can come back to the questionnaire and change your answers as much
as you like until the poll closes at midnight on Monday, January 22.
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Thank you for taking the time to help us pick our issues
for the year. And now, here are the candidates:
Wide consensus has emerged that something should be done
to reduce or eliminate the sales tax on groceries. While this issue has come
up previously, it has gained new momentum as a result of the recent increase
in the sales tax from 5 cents to 6 cents. The sales tax increase was passed
in a special legislative session convened in August by Governor Risch in order
to replace revenues lost because the Legislature also voted in the special session
to eliminate property taxes for schools (except for voter approved supplementary
bond levies). One of the major arguments against eliminating the property tax
for schools and raising the sales tax was that sales taxes fall disproportionately
hard on lower income families because essential purchases, such as groceries,
take up a greater share of their income. Elimination or reduction of the sales
tax on groceries would address this issue.
While there is a broad consensus that something should be done about the sales
tax on groceries, a wide variety of ideas have been mentioned about exactly
what should be done. Some have called for the total elimination of the sales
tax on groceries. Some have said grocery sales taxes should phased out over
a several year process. Recognizing how much revenue is lost by a total elimination,
some have said that sales tax should be reduced, perhaps to 3 cents, on groceries.
Others have said that the state income tax credit for what individuals spend
on groceries should be dramatically increased. Currently, the grocery income
tax credit is $25 for individuals and $35 for senior citizens. And still others
have said that the grocery tax credit should be increased only for those with
lower incomes and for seniors on fixed incomes and that those who don't make
enough to be required to pay state income taxes should also be able to file
for a check equal to the amount of the income tax credit.
There are two reasons that may suggest this
is a particularly good issue for The Common Interest. The first is simply that
it was most frequently mentioned by Legislators and members of the press when
we asked them what the most important issues were that would come before the
Legislature this year. Clearly, it will be a major topic of discussion. Second,
due to our work on property taxes last year, we have a particularly good reputation
and considerable clout on tax issues. In some ways, this would simply be a continuation
of our work on property taxes.
Partly in reaction to the fact that Idaho has one of the
lowest percentages in the country of high school graduates who go to college,
some have suggested that the state should establish a state-wide community college
system. Community colleges make higher education more accessible because people
can attend them while living at home and because they are less expensive than
four-year institutions. They also provide more vocational-technical education
than the state’s four year institutions. Currently, the state has two
community colleges—North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene and the
College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. The Boise and Idaho Falls areas are
often mentioned as areas where it would be helpful to add a community college.
The Boise area is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country without
a community college. This proposal has received strong support from the business
community which says that community colleges are necessary for them to have
the trained workforce that they need. Supporters also argue that such a system
would provide a substantial boost to the state’s economy.
One of the challenges of adding community colleges is, obviously, the funding
that would be required. North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho
are substantially funded by local property taxes. If the state committed to
funding additional community colleges, citizens in the Coeur d’ Alene
and Twin Falls areas would likely request state funding for their campuses as
a matter of fairness. One more modest proposal would simply lower the threshold
for establishment of a community college taxing district and the property tax
levies that would go with it from a two-thirds to a 60% majority. Another idea
is to expand the offers of existing higher education institutions at satellite
campuses around the state.
K-12 education funding was near the top of the
list of major issues identified by Legislators and members of the press in both
of our previous years as was again this year. Public schools funding is also
the one issue that we've picked for both the previous legislative sessions.
While the Legislators and members of the press we spoke with all mentioned K-12
funding, this year they also mentioned K-12 education policy issues besides
funding, largely because Republican Tom Luna was elected Superintendent of Public
Instruction this year to replace retiring Democrat Marilyn Howard. While many
anticipate major new policy initiatives, at this point it is still unclear what
those might be. Many believe that there will be a proposal regarding merit pay
for teachers. In his unsuccessful campaign to become Superintendent in 2002,
Luna emphasized the need for some sort of school voucher program that would
compensate parents who send their children to private schools. In 2006, Luna
avoided the controversial topic of vouchers, but when asked, seemed to imply
that he would still be interested in pursuing the idea. Additionally, the State
Board of Education plans ot come back with a revised high school reform proposal
that emphasizes increased requirements for science and math. Last year's proposal
failed by the narrowest of margins in the Legislature. Others have suggested
the state should look at defining what an "adequate" public K-12 school
system is, since that is what is required by the Constitution.
Besides these kinds of policy questions, the question of
funding levels for K-12 education will obviously still be an issue. This year's
debate will likely be influenced by the decisive failure of ballot Proposition
1 in the November. Proposition 1 would have required the Legislature to increase
state funding for K-12 education by roughly 20%. The Legislature's decisions
on K-12 education funding this year will also be affected by the decision in
the special session of the Legislature to eliminate the property tax for schools.
The proportion of K-12 education that used to come from the school property
tax must now come from the state's general funds. Some have suggested that distribution
formula that determines which districts get how much funding needs to be reexamined.
The state's contribution to funding school buildings in local school districts
may also again be an issue. At this time, there is consider uncertainty
about the status of the lawsuit over this issue that has gone on for more than
We've pursued four other issues besides K-12 funding
since we started a little over two years ago. Remarkably, we've prevailed
on three of those four (open committee meetings, property taxes, and eminent
domain) and on the fourth issue (Qwest's deregulation proposal) we came very
close to defeating a measure that everyone thought would pass easily. K-12 education
funding is the only issue on which we have had no visible influence. There may
be several factors that explain this. One is that the legislative process for
funding issues is quite different than for others and provides far less opportunity
for public input. For example, the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee
(JFAC) does not take public testimony. A second factor may be the way the K-12
debate is currently framed. There are many who advoacte for higher levels of
funding generally. Others argue that higher funding alone won't improve education.
We never seem to get to a thorough and practical discussion of what, if any,
specific new investments in K-12 education would be worth making. The Common
Interest may well be able to convene such as discussion, but not within the
confines of the K-12 budget discussion that occurs within a single legislative
While this may argue against picking this issue for
this legislative session, it may argue for working beyond this legislative session
to develop a brief that explored the most promising improvements that could
be made in Idaho's K-12 system and what their costs would be, including those
improvements that few within the usual education policy making community are
currently considering. We could then proactively work for the passage of any
measures that received two-thirds or greater support from the members assigned
to the issue.
Other considerations argue for picking this issue
again this session. First, it is clearly simply a high priority issue. Second,
this will be the first K-12 budget that will be passed since the elimination
of the school property tax. Proponents of eliminating school property tax
vowed that overall K-12 funding would not suffer as a result, but others have
doubts. Third, there will likely be significant K-12 policy issues introduced
that go beyond the question of funding levels.
In addition to asking you to rate the importance
of briefing and polling on the major K-12 issues that may come up in the 2007
session, we also ask you if you would support a longer-term, proactive effort
by The Common Interest to investigate what, if any, specific new investments
in Idaho K-12 education would be worth making.
Highways and Transportation
Costs for road construction and maintenance have been rising rapidly in large
part because of the increased costs of petroleum products and there is a concern
that the federal government may not provide the same level of funding as it
has in the past. Inspite of the GARVEE bond mechanism that recently passed the
Legislature, the Idaho Department of Transportation (IDOT) projects that it
will fall far short of keeping up even with basic maintenance of Idaho's highways
over the next several years, let alone complete new projects that are needed.
Consequently, IDOT has proposed a significant increase in the fuel tax. Since
gas and diesel prices are already so high for consumers, the idea of raising
taxes on fuels is controversial. There is, however, a widespread sense that
something needs to be done. Another idea that has been mentioned is to make
local option sales taxes available to address some of these needs, including
to fund mass transit systems like light rail in places like Boise to ease the
pressure on the Idaho's roads.
Southeastern Idaho Water Dispute
According to the prior appropriation doctrine, which governs
water use in Idaho, those who have older water rights have priority over those
who have younger water rights. Some of the oldest and largest water rights
in southeastern Idaho belong to the canal companies and irrigation districts
that diverted water from the Snake River in the early decades of the twentieth
century to create the vast irrigation systems that made settlement in southern
Idaho for thousands of families possible.
A few years ago, a number of canal companies formally requested
that the state enforce the prior allocation doctrine by curtailing the water
use of those who pump ground water out of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer in
order for the canal companies with the more senior rights to get their full
allocation of water. While it is now scientifically clear that pumping
out of the aquifer diminishes spring flows into the Snake River, the specifics
of these connections are complicated. Accordingly, it is difficult to
know with certainty the extent to which the water use by specific junior ground
water users should be curtailed in order for particular senior Snake River water
right holders to receive their full allocation of water.
Feeling that the state's response did not go far enough
to protect their rights, the canal companies successfully challenged the legality
and constitutionality of the the state's process for making such decisions in
Idaho's special water court. That decision is now before the Idaho Supreme
Court on appeal. While the case raises a number of legal issues, one of the
central questions is how far the prior allocation doctrine extends. For example,
the canal companies have argued that the prior allocation doctrine in the Idaho
Constitution means that the state must curtail any infringement on their water
rights, even at times when the canal companies do not need and are not using
all of that water. Many have argued that the prior allocation doctrine has not,
and should not be, taken to this extreme. The implications, they argue, of taking
it to this extreme would be significant. Since the state and its economy rely
so heavily on this water, such a strict interpretation would be economically
devastating to many ground water pumpers, create significant challenges for
a number of cities along the Snake, and would concentrate power in hands of
the owners of the canal companies. Since the issues raised by the appeal are
broad legal and constitutional issues, the results will have implications not
only for the people in southeastern and southcentral Idaho who live along the
Snake, but also for everyone in Idaho.
It is likely that some water bills will be pursued in this
session, but it remains unclear just what those bills may try to do. Many think
that the Supreme Court will not rule before the end of the legislative session
and that little agreement can be reached until then.
This issue presents some challenges for The Common Interest because
people's views about it tend to divide along regional lines. Accordingly, on
this issue it may difficult to fulfill our aim of providing a voice for positions
for which there is a broad consensus across partisan and regional divides.
In a system of government by the people, no issue is more fundamental than
how the people choose who will represent them. This year several proposals would
significantly change how we elect our representatives. First, Secretary of State
Ben Ysursa and the county clerks in Idaho are unaminously supporting a "vote
by mail" proposal. In a vote by mail system, like those used in Oregon
and Washington, voters complete ballots that are been mailed to them and then
return the ballot by mail. Increased voter turnout is a driving rationale for
this proposal. In the 2006 primary election in Idaho, voter turnout was less
than 26%, near an historic low. Oregon's turnout in its primary was 38%. The
clerks also suggest that their proposal would decrease the costs of elections
while also resolving problems with crowded polling places. In Meridian, for
example, some voters had to wait in line for more than three hours before casting
Second, the Republican Party adopted as part of their 2006 platform a proposal
to to close Idaho's open primary system. In Idaho's current system, we do not
declare a party affiliation and anyone can choose to vote in either the Republican
or Democratic primary. Under the system proposed by Republicans, each voter
would declare a party affiliation and or would declare him or herself an independent.
Voters would then vote only in primary for the party they declared. Independents,
who make up about 1/3 of Idaho voters, would not be allowed to vote in primary
elections. These elections would still be paid for with state and local government
At least part of the impetus for the Republicans' closed primary proposal appears
to be frustration with the result of the Republican primary election for the
1st Congressional District. Conservative state representative Bill Sali won
this race even though there was wide opposition to him among Republicans as
perhaps the most controversial legislator in Idaho. He won with 26% of the votes
cast in the primary. Some Republicans suspect that many Democrats chose to vote
in the open Republican primary in order to vote for Sali, thinking that he would
be easier for Democratic candidate Larry Grant to defeat. These Republicans
would like to avoid such an outcome in the future by closing the primary.
Third, Idaho could require runoff elections when no candidate gets a majority
of the votes like other states do in order to ensure that the candidate who
best represents the people of the state is elected. The Republican primary for
the 1st Congressional District that Bill Sali won had six candidates. With no
run off election, a candidate could win in such a primary with support from
less than 17% of the voters.
An interesting version of runoff elections is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).
In this kind of an election, everyone votes for their preferred candidate like
in most elections. Unlike in most elections, everyone also votes for their second
most preferred candidate, their third most preferred candidate, and so on. If
no candidate wins a majority of the first preference votes, the candidate who
received the fewest first preference votes is eliminated. Those who voted for
this candidate then have their second preference votes counted. If that gives
any candidate a majority, then that candidate wins. If still no candidate gets
a majority, then the next lowest vote getter is eliminated. This process continues
until one candidate gets a majority. This method thus provides the advantage
that the candidate with the broadest support wins but without the expense and
delay of a traditional run off. Instant Runoff Voting has been adopted to ensure
that the most representative candidates are elected in a variety of places ranging
from congressional Republican primary elections in Utah to San Francisco city
Fourth, some of have suggested that Idaho's rules should be tightened for how
signatures can by gathered for petitions to place initiative measures on the
ballot. This proposal stems largely from frustration with how Proposition 2,
which would have required government to compensate property owners when a regulation
diminished their property's value, made it onto the 2006 ballot . The substantial
funds for the signature campaign that put this measure on the ballot came almost
entirely from out of state. Rather than relying on volunteer supporters to gather
signatures, as has been typical in the past, the out-of-state funds were used
mostly to signature gatherers who had been hired for pay.
The election reform proposals that will come before the Legislature
this year go right to The Common Interest's core concern that special interest
and extreme partisan politics hold too much sway in our political process. One
of the most important factors explaining why we get too many elected officials
who listen to special interests and extreme partisans more than to common citizens
is declining voter turnout, particularly in primaries. When voter turnout is
low, it is far easier for mobilization efforts by narrow special interests to
make a difference. Research shows that when voter turnout is low, it is voters
on the extreme left and right who turn out no matter what. By boosting voter
turnout, the vote by mail system could result in more elected officials who
put aside the clamor of special interests and extreme partisans to listen to
practical solutions that work for all Idahoans. Runoff elections, particularly
Instant Runoff Voting, could also help avoid candidates who win with only the
narrow, but passionate, support of special interests and extreme partisans.
Because of our work to secure greater openness for legislative
committee meetings and the reputation and clout it has given us on these kind
of non-partisan good government issues, we are well positioned to make a significant
impact by working on this issue. The election reform issue will have an even
greater impact than open legislative committees. In fact, there may be no issue
discussed this session that will have a more lasting impact than this one since
it affects who will be making decisions on every other issue in the future.
The state has a budget surplus of about $200 million.
The question is what to do with the surplus. Some argue that it should
fund a tax cut and others argue that it should be used to fund high priority
needs. In terms of tax breaks, there have been suggestions to do something
about sales tax on groceries (as mentioned above), to roll back the 1 cent increase
in the sales tax, and to provide further property tax relief. Ideas on spending
priorities that could be addressed with the surplus include community colleges,
K-12 education, and transportation needs mentioned above, as well as overcrowded
Ideas about what to do with the surplus also vary in terms
of whether they long or short duration, which stems from different views about
how permanent or temporary the surplus is. Some argue that the surplus reveals
a long-term or structural surplus, meaning that the state government is simply
taxing more than it needs to. Some argue that much of the surplus is temporary
in nature, steming from a short-term improvement in the economy that may well
become sluggish again. If all or part of the surplus is used to fund either
a tax cut or a new spending priority, many argue they should be short-term,
not permanent, measures. Those arguing this point out that permanent tax
cuts were passed the last time we had a surplus, which led to several years
of shortfalls and the need for a temporary increase in the sales tax.
Some argue that the surplus should be put in a rainy day fund to protect against
such downturns in the future.
Treatment for Drug Abuse and Mental Health
There has been a growing consensus that the treatment services the state provides
for drug abuse and mental health issues are inadequate, particularly following
the quite negative conclusions of an Office of Performance Assessment's evaluation
of state services. Several changes have already been undertaken, including a
significant reorganization and change in staff at the Department of Health &
Welfare and the creation of state drug czar position and an interagency committee
to coordinate the state's drug abuse efforts. Many still believe that more needs
to be done. There may be a number of important proposals come forward in this
session of the Legislature to deal with these issues. One significant idea that
may be discussed is creating a seperate agency to address these issues. If the
recommendations of an interim committee of the Legislature are followed, however,
the most comprehensive efforts at dealing with this may be postponed until the
2008 legislative session after a review and recommendations from an independent
A number of energy related concerns may come before the legislature this session.
There is a general concern that Idaho be able to maintain what has been some
of the most affordable electricity in the nation. There is a particular concern
since much of our affordable electricty comes from hydroelectric power that
depends on water that is increasingly in demand for other needs. The water dispute
between users of Snake River water and those who pump out of the aquifer north
of the Snake was mentioned above. Protection of salmon as an endangered species
places demands on flows in the state's rivers that are often in tension with
the production of cheap electricity. The federal relicensing process for many
hydroelectric dams in and near Idaho may require expensive new environmental
mitigation measures. While the company that had proposed building a coal-fired
electricty generating plant near Jerome has now abandoned its proposal, there
is still a concern about the state's lack of regulations governing the siting
of such plants. In terms of fossil fuels, there are concerns about why Idaho
gas and diesel prices have not come down as much as in other areas of the country
and some have mentioned giving the Attorney General greater authority to investigate
these issues. There are also proposals to further invest in and encourage ethanol
and other bio fuels. Finally, an interim committee was charged with developing
a comprehensive state energy plan, though it appears it will not have completed
its work and so this may be deferred for another year.
Elk Farming and Shooter-Bull Operations
As many as nine bills may come before the legislature to further regulate or
ban elk farming operations, particularly "shooter-bull" operations
where people can pay to go and shoot a domestically raised elk. Long viewed
with scorn by some, the issue has gained greater urgency after 160 domestic
elk escaped from a shooter-bull operation in Ashton, less than forty miles from
Yellowstone National Park. Aside from the scorn many hunters and others feel
for the unsportsman idea of paying to shoot a domestic elk on a farm, there
is a concern that domestic elk could infect wild elk with disease. Although
none of the regular testing of domestic elk herds by Idaho's Agriculture Department
have tested positive for the feared diseases such as brucellosis or chronic
wasting disease, some domestic elk in Montana did test positive for chronic
wasting disease several years ago and Montana banned domestic elk operations
as result. Wyoming also has banned these operations because of this concern
and the governor of Montana has recently called on Idaho to do the same.
Health Care Accessibility and Affordability
Health care costs continue to increase dramatically, putting substantial financial
pressure on individuals and families, businesses, and county and state governments.
Many are suggesting that the state needs to address this problem. A wide
variety of measures has been discussed with no detailed alternatives clearly
emerging as yet. Some ideas draw on the ability of the state to purchase
at high volume and get discounts as a result. For example, the state might
establish a discount prescription drug program through its ability to by in
bulk or offer lower cost health insurance alternatives. Drawing on what
has been done is some other states, one idea is to have the state certify safe
sources of prescription drugs from other countries, such as Canada, with lower
prices and then provide ways for people to purchase drugs from those sources.
Other ideas emphasize finding ways to increase the access to and the use of
preventive and early care which tends to be more cost effective than treating
illness later on.
One particular aspect of the accessibility and affordability question is the
federal Medicaid program. It combines federal and state funds to pay for healthcare
for low income, elderly, and disabled individuals. The state's financial
contribution to the Medicaid program has been growing at an alarming rate of
more than 15% per year since 1997. The state currently contributes over
$300 million annually to the program. Last year, Governor Kempthorne successfully
won approval from the Legislature and received waivers from the federal government
to try some new approaches. This plan splits those who receive Medicaid
into three different groups: (1) elderly, (2) disabled and special needs, (3)
low income healthy children and adults and then serves each of these populations
in different ways to provide reasonable health care more cost effectively.
For example, a low income but healthy family may be required to make low co-payments
for prescription drugs to encourage them to use generic drugs or co-payments
may be required for emergency room visits to encourage going to a more cost-effective
primary care provider. It is too early to tell how much savings this program
will create, but many believe that there are other changes, and refinements
to those changes already undertaken, that should be tried.
Health care is an enormously complex issue that really exceeds our capacity
to do much on within the confines of a single legislative session, but on which
we might make a substantial contribution if we took a longer-term, proactive
approach in which we examined a range of approaches that have not received much
attention in Idaho. For example, Republican Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney
worked with the large Democratic majority in the Massachussetts Legislature
to enact a measure that requires everyone to have a basic level of health insurance,
much like most states require car insurance. The state then provides some assistance
to those who couldn't otherwise afford this coverage. While the program was
just recently implemented and it is too early to tell how well it is working,
it has been praised from across the political spectrum as a common sense way
to rein in costs while boosting access. This is just one example of a number
of practical, non-partisan solutions that may be worth examination.
The questionnaire will ask you both how important it is that we brief
the health care measures proposed in the 2007 session as well as whether you
would support The Common Interest pursuing a longer-term, proactive approach
to this issue. We may be well advised to work on this in a long-term, proactive
way but probably not well advised to choose it as one of our issues
for this session since it simply exceeds our capacity to do substantial work
on in such a short time frame.
Local Option Taxes
Various proposals to give local governments the option, with voter approval,
of levying their own taxes are likely to come before the Legislature. Most of
these proposals involve a local option to levy a sales tax. The rationale for
making this option available is often either to give local governments a way
of addressing the costs of fast paced growth and/or to deal with costs associated
with services for tourists who don't pay property tax, the only kind of tax
local governments can typically levy.
A couple of measures along these lines were proposed as part of the property
tax debate in the last session. A majority of our members who reviewed this
issue supported those measures but less than the two-thirds majority required
for us to have taken an official position of support.
Greater Limits on Abortion
As in past years, proposals to create greater limits on
abortion are likely to come before the legislature. The most likely proposall
would require parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. Proponents
argue that parents have a right and a responsibility to consult with and support
their daughters in such a weighty and difficult matter. Opponents argue
that a parental consent requirement can create undue and inappropriate strain
on young women who are already in a very difficult situation. They argue
that this is particularly true in cases in which a young woman has become pregnant
through incest or rape, especially if the offender is the young women's father
or other member of her family.
Property taxes where the central issue in the Legislature last year, and we
ended up playing a pivotal role in that debate. While several major changes
have now passed into law, some are suggesting that additional steps need to
be taken, particularly those from Kootenai and Bonner County in northern Idaho.
Governor Otter supports freezing the assessed value of homes at the purchase
price until it is sold. Another idea is to require disclosure of sales prices
on real estate that has been sold so that the state and counties have better
data with which to assess the market value of property. Representative Dennis
Lake, the new chairman of House Revenue and Taxation Committee, has said that
it may be wise for the Legislature to not consider any new property tax measures
this year. Before making further changes, he suggested, it would be helpful
to let the changes already taken be in effect for some time to judge how well
they are working.
Higher Education Funding
Higher education in Idaho has faced three simultaneous
funding challenges in recent years. First, enrollment in the state's public
colleges and universities has increased. Second, the costs of higher education
have been rising faster than inflation. Third, the state's funding of
higher education has been limited by the tight budgets of the last several years.
Consequently, the costs borne by students for education have risen dramatically,
over 100% over the last ten years. These costs have increased faster than
higher education costs in any other western state. Although we used to
have the lowest higher education costs for students of any of the western states,
we are now more expensive than Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. We are still
cheaper than Washington, Oregon, and Montana. Some are suggesting that
it is time to invest more heavily in Idaho higher education generally.
Partly because Idaho ranks 45th of the 50 states in terms of the
percentage of its high school graduates going to college, one proposal by the
state board of education would increase the need-based scholarships available.
Minimum Wage Increases
The minimum wage of $5.15 an hour established by the federal government has
not been raised in almost 10 years. The new Democratic majority in Congress
has committed to raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour early in the new
session. Many states also establish minimum wage standards and 27 states have
established minimum wages above the current $5.15 federal minimum wage. Idaho's
is currently the same as the federal minimum wage. Idaho Democrats are proposing
to raise the Idaho level if Congress fails to do so.
Since it appears almost certain that Congress will increase the
minimum wage to $7.25 very soon, it is likely that if we chose this issue we
would end up having nothing to work in the state legislature. We're probably
well advised not to choose this as one of our three issues to work on in the
Idaho Legislature this year.
Sales Tax Exemptions
Proposals will likely come before the Legislature that
would seek to limit sales tax exemptions. A 2004 interim legislative committee
examined current exemptions to the sales tax and whether some or all exemptions
should be eliminated and the overall sales tax rate reduced. The committee identified
72 categories of sales tax exemptions or exclusions. If those were eliminated
over $1.2 billion in additional revenue would be generated and the sales tax
could be reduced from 6 cents to between 3 or 4 cents and still generate the
same sales tax revenue.
The single biggest sales tax exemption is the exemption
for services. In 2004, the Division of Financial Management estimated that if
services were taxed at the 6 cent rate in 2004 it would generate over $865 million
in revenue. Many have pointed out that when the Idaho sales tax was implemented
in 1965, about 60% of consumer spending was on goods and 40% was on services.
The service sector of the economy has grown in the intervening years and those
percentages have flipped, with about 40% of consumer spending going to purchase
goods and about 60% to purchase services. Many have argued that it is out-dated
and ill-advised to place all of the sales tax burden on a diminishing portion
of the economy. Furthermore, they argue, even that aspect of the sales tax has
an increasing number of holes in it as the number of exemptions proliferate.
The 72 categories of exemptions and exclusions the interim committee found in
2004 had grown from the 17 established when the sales tax was first implemented
in 1965. Others point out a number of serious logistical challenges that are
faced in taxing services that are not faced in taxing goods.
There has been no significant movement towards eliminating
sales tax exemptions and lowering the base sales tax rate since the interim
committee report. In fact, the interim committee report included no recommendations
because the interim committee itself was split over what to do, if anything.
Similarly, a measure proposed by Senator Corder in the last session to review
10% of all sales, income, and property tax exemptions each year for the next
ten years to investigate whether they were still justified failed to even get
a hearing in committee. The Common Interest briefed this proposal as part of
our property tax brief. It was supported by 91% of our members who reviewed
this issue. Several new sales tax exemptions were approved in the last session.
Little has been done to eliminate sales tax exemptions
largely because of the same political dynamic that has led to such a proliferation
of exemptions in the first place. Most sales tax exemptions benefit a relatively
small number of people who will recieve the exemption. The impact would be substantial
for those few who would receive it. The recipients are thus motivated to mobilize
politically in support of the exemption. On the other hand, any given exemption
typically places a relatively small burden on all of those who do not receive
it and who carry the burden of making up for the lost revenue. Because their
broad effect on all of us is small, proposed exemptions typcially don't stimulate
anyone to mobilize politically to oppose the exemption. Accordingly, when a
proposed tax exemption comes before the Legislature it has many avid supporters
and few or no opponents. While the impact of this classic special interest political
dynamic is small for most individual exemptions, the cumulative effect is enormous,
as the interim committee documented.
The issue of exemptions for sales taxes, as
well as for income and property taxes, is another issue on which it may be advisable
for The Common Interest to take a longer-term, more proactive approach. We could
develop a comprehensive brief(s) on all the exemptions and the arguments for
and against each. We could then propose a comprehensive package that would eliminate
all tax exemptions which two-thirds of our members assigned to this issue opposed.
By bundling the elimination of many tax exemptions together for which there
was strong opposition, we may be able to bring enough public attention to the
issue to overcome the usual special interest dynamics that protect unwarrented
tax exemptions. Accordingly, the questionnaire asks you how important you think
it would be for The Common Interest to brief and poll on the proposals on this
issue that come before the 2007 session, as well as whether you would support
The Common Interest taking a longer-term, proactive approach to this issue.
This is probably another issue on which it would be difficult for us to do much
on in the short term, so we may be well-advised to not choose it as one of our
three issues for this session.
There is a nursing shortage nationally that is expected to get worse. In
Idaho, the shortage is even more pronounced and is projected to increase even
more rapidly than is the case nationally. Accordingly, several proposals will
likely come before the Legislature to address this situation. Several of the
proposals aim to increase the state's capacity to train new nurses. Last year,
1,200 students were enrolled in nursing programs in Idaho and 800 were turned
away. Lt. Governor, and former Governor, Jim Risch has a proposal that includes
major funding to boost the nursing programs at Lewis-Clark State College in
Lewiston and at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.
Following the passage in the 2006 election of the amendment
to the Idaho Constitution that bans gay marriage, proposals are likely to come
before the Legislature that would prohibit homosexuals from adopting children.
Government Ethics and Lobbying Reform
Some significant ethics and lobbying reforms were approved
in the last session of the Legislature. First, there are increased restrictions
governing the use of campaign funds, particularly on expending campaign funds
for personal uses and for expenses connected with holding office after a candidate
has been elected. Second, people who lobby the executive branch for contracts
and other policies or actions favorable to them are now required to register
and submitt reports just as lobbyists in the Legislature are required to do.
Additional reform suggestions will likely come before the
Legislature this session. Some would like to ban former state government employees
from representing a new employer before an agency for which they formerly worked,
at least for some period of time, or from disclosing confidential information
to the new employer gained while working for the state. Some would like to require
greater personal financial disclosure by public officials in order to make conflicts
of interest more apparent. Most of these ideas have come before the Legislature
before but have gained little traction, though support may be increasing in
the wake of the many political scandals nationally.
Since reducing the influence of special interests
in government is one of our aims, this may be an interesting issue for us
Growth Paying for Itself
As the third fastest growing state in the nation, Idaho faces considerable
growing pains. Some of the most accute are the pressures on local governments
to accommodate the increased demands created by growth. Many contend that that
growth does not pay for the costs it imposes and argue that it should. Several
proposals to do this will likely come before the Legislature. One plan would
be to increase the extent of impact fees that local government can assess and
to increase the ease with which local governments can establish such fees. A
plan along these lines was proposed in the last session as part of the property
tax debate. 82% of our members who reviewed this proposal supported it, but
it was opposed by powerful special interests and did not pass. Another idea,
mentioned above is to give local governments the option, with voter approval,
to impose their own sales tax. Again, a majority of our members supported a
couple of measures along these lines last year, but less than the two-thirds
majority required for us to have taken an official position of support.
The most substantial proposal likely to be given serious consideration
is the enhanced impact fee law that was considered last year. Since we have
already briefed and taken an official position in favor of this proposal, we
will be working to secure its passage even without choosing it as an issue this
year. We may be well advised to choose other issues to brief and poll on this
year, while still working on this issue this year based on the homework we did
Childcare and Daycare Licensing
Proposals to increase the standards and oversight required to obtain and maintain
a license to offer childcare or operate a daycare will likely be considered
in this session of the Legislature.
As Idaho continues to grow at a rapid rate, conerns about the impacts on air
quality also are growing, particularly in the Boise area. The state created
the Treasure Valley Air Quality Management Council, but some say that they need
to be given more teeth to implement and not just recommend changes.
Since the proposals that will be discussed affect only the Boise
area, this would be a problematic issue for us, as an organization that works
on behalf of common citizens across the entire state, to work on.
The age of the electrical and plumbing systems in the
State Capitol building are increasingly a problem, including fire hazards.
The limits on space are also presenting problems. For example, the rooms
in which many legislative committee hearings are held often cannot accommodate
all the members of the public who wish to participate. Technological
upgrades are needed in many respects.
Consequently, last year the Legislature and Governor Kempthorne
approved an ambitious restoration and expansion plan, including the construction
of two new underground wings. Governor Otter made his opposition to this a centerpiece
of his campaign, including running television ads on it and the new Speaker
of the House, Lawrence Denny voted against it last year. It is not clear how
the Governor and/or the Speaker could stop the plans at this point, particularly
since the bonds to fund the project have already been issued. Nevertheless,
this may come up as an issue this session.
Requirements for Trucks to Cover Their Loads
A proposal to tighten the requirements on when trucks must
cover their loads (particularly when carrying sand, gravel, or dirt) is likely
to come before the Legislature.
Overcrowded prisons were mentioned by many of the Legislators and members of
the press with whom we spoke. We are not asking you to rate the importance of
this issue this year since our membership chose this as an issue last year.
We did not end up briefing and polling on this issue last year partly because
several of the more ambitious proposals to deal with this problem were postponed
and partly because we were swamped in dealing with the very complicated other
issues we worked on last year. We have been working on the brief for this issue
since the legislative session and hope to have it completed within the next
several weeks. Those who were assigned to this issue will receive e-mails letting
them know as soon as the brief is posted.