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2009 Issues


Note: We polled on this issues brief in late December, 2008 and early January, 2009. For the results of the poll, click here.


Thank you for taking the time to rate the issues facing our state. Below you will find short descriptions of 25 of the most important specific issues likely to come before the Legislature. You will also find a list of ten general policy areas. We ask that you rate how important it is for us to develop full briefing materials on each specific legislative issue and how important each general policy area is. We will choose the issues that we will develop policy briefs on according to your ratings.

We developed the list of 25 legislative issues by inviting input from the Governor, 12 legislative leaders, and seven individuals who are either members of the press or are policy experts in the state. The legislative issues are listed in order from the issue most to least frequently identified by these 20 people.

Note that you need to login in order to open the questionnaire where you rate the importance of each issue. You can login using the box in the upper left corner of this page. If you've forgotten your username or password, CLICK HERE for a reminder e-mail.

Once you login, the questions will appear on the right side of your screen. After you answer the questions and hit the submit button at the bottom of the questionnaire, you should get a message in red letters at the top confirming that we got your answers. You can come back to the questionnaire and change your answers as much as you like until the poll closes. The poll will close at 9:00 am on Wednesday, January 7. We have been invited to announce our results at the Associated Press Legislative Preview on January 8.

As you will see, the dominant theme this year is the severe economic downturn and the significantly lower state revenues that have resulted. Most expect that these circumstances will make it unlikely that many issues other than the budget and transportation funding will get much attention. Each of the 20 individuals we interviewed identified these two issues as likely to come before the Legislature this session. The next most frequently mentioned issue, local option taxing, is seen by most as part of the transportation funding issue and was identified by seven (35%) of the individuals we interviewed. The rest of the legislative issues in our top 25 this year were identified by six (30%) or fewer of the 20 people we interviewed, a stark contrast to the results from our interviews in the last four years.

Five of the 25 legislative issues that were nominated, including transportation funding, we have chosen to brief in previous years so you will not be asked to rate these issues. The already chosen issues identified by the 20 individuals we interviewed are:

Transportation Funding (20 out of 20 interviewed identified this as an issue, 100%)

This is the second year in a row that funding for transportation infrastructure has been nominated by everyone we surveyed. Costs for road construction and maintenance have been rising. So have the total number of vehicle miles driven in the state meaning more wear and tear on our road and highways. But transportation funding has been flat. The Idaho Department of Transportation (IDT) and local governments project that they will fall short of keeping up even with basic maintenance of Idaho's roads and highways over the next several years, let alone complete new projects that are needed even though the Legislature passed the GARVEE bond funding mechanism a few years ago. Because the Governor has made this his top priority, everyone expects it to get significant attention. Because addressing this issue requires significant new revenue, most likely from increased fuel taxes, car registration fees, and other sources, many expect little will actually happen given the economic circumstances. We chose this issue last year and are currently preparing our brief on it.

Local Option Taxing Authority (7 of 20, 35%)

Local governments, particularly cities, counties, and highway districts, have been asking for local option taxing authority. The subject of considerable debate last session, this would give local government the authority to propose to voters in that jurisdiction a sales tax of 1 cent or less for specified purposes. The sales tax would not go into effect unless approved by voters. It has been challenging to find agreement in the Legislature on key terms for this authority such as how high a threshold of voter approval should be required and whether there should be a constitutional amendment to provide this authority. Because local option taxing authority is most often discussed in the context of providing funding for local transportation needs, we are including this topic in the transportation brief we are currently developing.

Primary Elections (6 of 20, 30%)

The Idaho Republican Party has sued the State of Idaho in federal court seeking to have our open primary system declared unconstitutional. The party has adopted a rule that only Republicans can vote in their primary. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for February 18. Most knowledgeable legal observers expect the court to strike down the open primary and then direct the state to implement a different process that is constitutional. Judge Winmill has indicated that he hopes to make a decision soon enough in the session for the Legislature to act if that is necessary. We briefed and polled on this issue in 2006. Most observers expect that The Common Interest’s proposal for a modified open primary in which registered members of parties must vote in their party’s primary and independents vote in the primary of their choice will be passed in some form if the open primary is struck down.

(4 of 20, 20%)

A number of important water issues exist in the state. This session the particular aspects of this issue most likely to get attention are a plan to manage the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer and proposals to study to the state’s aquifers.

We chose this issue last year but have not yet briefed it. As was true last year, it is unclear how much will actually happen this year.

Overcrowded Prisons (3 of 20, 15%)

Idaho continues to face challenges with the overcrowding of its prisons. We briefed and polled on this issue last year and will continue to advocate the positions that resulted from our process. Given the budget situation this year, it is unlikely significant legislative action will happen this year on most aspects of this issue. We will, however, be actively pursuing this session our proposal to raise the beer and wine tax to provide dedicated funding for substance abuse treatment. Because the pressure on general fund dollars will be pronounced this year, it may be an opportune time to raise the beer and wine tax to relieve the general fund of that burden.

And now, here are the candidates for legislative issues this year:

1. Budget (20 out of 20 interviewed identified this as an issue, 100%)

The severe economic downturn we are currently experiencing has resulted in state revenue that is dramatically less than it was projected to be. The Governor has already ordered state agencies to cut back 4% of their budgets and to submit plans for 2% more in hold backs. Economic projections indicate that the revenue picture may be even bleaker in the coming year. Three main options are available to manage the reduced revenue. First, the state can tap into "rainy day" funds established to help weather economic times like these. Second, the state can cut spending. Third, the state can raise taxes.

While the state has more than $300 million in rainy day funds, many believe that is insufficient to sustain government spending at current levels through the economic downturn. One question then becomes how much to draw on these funds this session and how much should be held in reserve for the following year or two. To the extent that the rainy day funds don't sustain current levels of spending, another question is how much to cut spending and/or raise taxes. Many argue that because many government services are needed all the more in economically difficult times, cutting services is problematic. Many also argue, however, that increasing taxes is particularly burdensome and economically counterproductive at a time when taxpayers are already having a difficult time making ends meet. There are few attractive options in economic times like these. Each of the 20 people we interviewed not only identified this as an issue, they indicated they expected this to be far and away the dominate issue of the session.

2. Teacher Evaluation (tie, 6 of 20, 30%)

Last year State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna proposed a program that would reward teacher performance with bonus pay. It was the subject of considerable debate and ultimately failed last session. A task force revisited the issue this year. Two bills will likely be proposed this session. One bill would address issues of how to consistently and validly evaluate teacher performance. The second bill would provide bonus pay tied to teacher performance so evaluated. Given this year's budget constraints, many expect that teacher evaluation may get serious consideration but that bonus pay will not.

3. Energy (tie, 6 of 20, 30%)

The Legislature adopted a new energy plan last session and the Governor created a new Office of Energy Resources shortly after that. The plan recognizes challenges Idaho faces in maintaining an adequate supply of electricity at what has been some of the most affordable rates in the nation. In particular, a number of pressures make it likely that the low costs of generating electricity from hydroelectric power and from coal will increase. These are the two chief sources of electricity in Idaho. Other electric energy concerns include transmission issues. Various proposals may come before the Legislature this year to deal with these issues, particularly proposals emphasizing ways to conserve more energy and rely more on renewable energy.

4. Childcare and Daycare Licensing (tie, 5 of 20, 25%)

Childcare and daycare licensing bills similar to those that have been introduced in past years and defeated will likely be proposed again. They would require more child-care providers to undergo background checks, safety inspections and first-aid training.

5. Election Integrity (tie, 5 of 20, 25%)

Several legislators are concerned about the integrity of the 2008 election. In Ada County, officials sent absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter and a large proportion of voters exercised this option. The Legislature rejected a vote-by-mail proposal brought by the county clerks in 2006 and supported by The Common Interest largely because of ballot security concerns. Some of those legislators are now concerned that absentee ballots are being used to circumvent the Legislature’s decision. They are concerned that many of the newly registered voters, including those that voted absentee, registered with false information and voted more than once. Accordingly, proposals to restrict absentee balloting or to modify Idaho’s same-day voter registration process may be proposed.

6. Election Consolidation (tie, 4 of 20, 20%)

A proposal will likely come before the Legislature to consolidate elections to fewer dates. Currently, elections for jurisdictions such as school districts and fire districts can be held on a wide range of dates other than the regular primary and general election dates in even years and the non-partisan city elections in odd years. Voter turnout for elections in these other jurisdictions is extremely low.

7. Early Childhood Education (tie, 4 of 20, 20%)

Currently, Idaho as a state does not provide education prior to Kindergarten. Citing research on positive effects of early childhood education and the fact that 39 other states have state-funded early childhood education, supporters will likely propose a bill again that would provide optional pre-Kindergarten education in Idaho. Opponents who have defeated this measure in past sessions may bring their own bill this year. Opponents of school-conducted early childhood education argue that young children are best cared for and taught in the home. Accordingly, they may propose a bill that would pay parents part of the savings the state would realize if parents did not send their children home from Kindergarten.

8. Government Ethics (tie, 4 of 20, 20%)

Proposals to raise the ethical requirements in government will likely be brought forward this session. For example, one measure would increase the financial disclosure requirements for registered lobbyists. Another proposal would require certain kinds of financial disclosure for public officials and candidates. Currently, although 47 other states and the federal government require public officials and candidates to file personal financial statements, Idaho does not. Another proposal comes from several examples in Idaho in recent years of individuals leaving government and taking jobs, often at higher pay, lobbying the branch of government or agency they had just been working for. The bill would prohibit individuals from such lobbying for one year after leaving the government's employment. A majority of states and the federal government have such "revolving door" laws requiring a one or two year “cooling off period.”

9. Health Care Accessibility and Affordability (tie, 3 of 20, 15%)

Rising health care costs that were already putting increasing financial pressure on individuals, families, businesses, and government are even more challenging during this severe economic downturn. Many are suggesting that the state needs to address this problem. While there are interesting conceptual ideas being floated, most of them will require significantly more detailed development. Most observers don't expect much substantive progress on this issue in this session.

10. Mental Health Treatment (tie, 3 of 20, 15%)

There have been growing concerns that state provisions for mental health needs are inadequate. Proposals to address these concerns may come forward, though most think that little of significance will happen in a year of such tight budgets.

11. Medical Education (tie, 3 of 20, 15%)

One aspect of the health care challenge in Idaho is fewer doctors per capita than in other states. To address this, Governor Otter and others have suggested that Idaho should establish its own medical school. Others have suggested that the more cost-effective way to get more doctors in Idaho is to expand residency training programs here. One or more medical education proposals along these lines are likely to come before the Legislature this year though few expect them to get much traction given declining state revenues.

12. Midwives and Naturopaths (tie, 3 of 20, 15%)

Proposals are likely to again come forward that deal with state licensing and/or regulation of midwives and those who practice naturopathic medicine.

13. Grocery Taxes (tie, 3 of 20, 15%)

An increase in the program providing an income tax credit to compensate senior citizens and lower income families for sales taxes paid on groceries was passed last year. It called for a phasing in of the increase over several years unless we faced a severe economic downturn. Governor Otter and others suggest that the phase in should continue, particularly because senior citizens and low income families will have a tougher time paying for groceries in the current economic climate. Others argue that we can’t afford the increase right now and that they should be postponed.

14. Personal Property Tax (tie, 3 of 20, 15%)

Property tax in Idaho is assessed not only on real commercial property like land and buildings, but also on "personal property." This includes property not directly involved in production like furniture, office equipment, and computers. It is complicated to comply with state law on this count and difficult for the state to enforce compliance. Consequently, compliance rates on this tax are low.

The business lobby pursued exempting all personal property from property tax last session. The compromise that passed exempted the first $100,000 in personal property from tax. The law provides for the exemption to go into effect at the beginning of 2009 provided that state general fund receipts exceeded the previous year’s receipts by 5%. Since that did not happen this year, the exemption will go into effect in the next year in which general fund receipts do exceed the previous year’s by 5%. The business lobby will again pursue exempting all personal property from property tax. Given the tight budgets, few think that proposal will pass this session.

15. Reducing Property Tax Assessments (tie, 2 of 20, 10%)

With the bursting of the real estate bubble, some are suggesting measures that would require county tax assessors to lower property tax valuations more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

16. Fish & Game License Fee Increases (tie, 2 of 20, 10%)

The Idaho Fish & Game Department is proposing increases in the price of various licenses.

17. Constitutional Amendment for Local Government Bonding (tie, 2 of 20, 10%)

The recent decision by the Idaho Supreme Court in the Fraser case has significantly curtailed what had been local government practice for bonding for certain projects. Some are proposing an amendment to the Idaho Constitution to address this issue.

18. State Employee Compensation (tie, 2 of 20, 10%)

The Governor may again pursue an effort to put more of state employees’ overall compensation into salary and less into benefits.

19. State Worker Retiree Benefits (tie, 2 of 20, 10%)

There have been concerns in the past about whether the state can meet its full obligations to retired state employees. With the downturn in the stock market in which those funds are invested, these concerns have been heightened. Some measures may be proposed to address this though significant new investment will be difficult given declining revenues.

20. Tax Breaks (1 of 20, 5%)

There are many who believe that Idaho has granted too many tax breaks that benefit particular groups but that are not in the public interest. Proposals to address some of these tax breaks or to address them more comprehensively may be proposed this session, though most expect these efforts not to go very far.

In addition to questions about particular policy areas in which those we surveyed think specific legislation may be proposed, the questionnaire includes questions about how important you think, in general, each of the following 10 broad policy areas are:

Jobs, wages, and the economy
Transportation and Other Public Infrastructure
Social Issues (e.g. gay marriage and abortion)

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