Idaho Gov. Brad Little told reporters Thursday that the follow-up work to implement the education funding components of the Sept. 1 special session law, House Bill 1, will be among his top priorities during the 2023 legislative session that opens Monday.
During an hour-long meeting with the press corps, Little also pledged to continue to fight the distribution of the drug fentanyl. Although he did not reveal specific details or proposals, Little alluded to the fact that property tax rates will also be a major issue during the upcoming session.
Little and legislative leaders from the Democratic and Republican parties both took their turns fielding questions from reporters during the annual legislative preview event, which was sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and took place at the Idaho State Capitol. The event served to set the stage for Little’s State of the State address, which he will deliver to a joint session of the Idaho Legislature at 1 p.m. Monday in the House Chambers at the Idaho State Capitol.
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New faces, leadership in the Idaho Legislature
All Idaho legislative sessions are closely watched — and occasionally chaotic and dysfunctional — because the session is where Idaho’s 105 legislators write each element of the state budget, review agency rules and vote on new laws. There is even more anticipation and uncertainty surrounding the opening of the 2023 legislative session because of all the changes and turnover. This session, 39 of the 105 legislators are first-timers who have never served before. There is an entirely new Republican leadership team in the Idaho House of Representatives, led by newly elected Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star. On top of that, the leadership and composition of nearly every legislative committee changed significantly, with a suite of new committee chairpersons who will lead the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the House and Senate Education committees, the House and Senate Health and Welfare committees, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and other key panels.=
Little says $330M in K-12 education funding will be top priority
But for Little, the path forward starts with picking up where the Sept. 1 special session ended. During the special session, legislators passed House Bill 1, which transfers $330 million in annual funding from sales tax collections to public education and directs another $80 million per year toward in-demand careers or career training. Although the bill passed with bipartisan support in September, legislators did not address how to implement, carve up or distribute the new funding for education. Little said he will work with legislators and party leaders to make that happen during the upcoming session.
“Obviously follow on to House Bill 1, whether it be K-12 (public schools) or in-demand careers, the work of getting those implemented will be first and foremost in what we talk about,” Little told reporters. “Our commitment and the commitment we made to the people of Idaho when we ran that bill was and is still a priority for myself.”
To facilitate the implementation of the education funding, Little said he has been focusing on meeting with many of the 39 new legislators, none of whom were serving in office when the special session law passed. Little said those meetings have taken place at the Idaho State Capitol and in legislators’ home districts.
“I fully recognize every two years there is an entirely new slate of legislators, and that’s why it’ll be something that will be a priority for us to continue with the intent of House Bill 1,” Little said.
Little suggested he will continue to push for salary increases for teachers and classified staff members who work in schools.
“We’ve still got work to do from a competitive standpoint for our teachers,” Little said.
“We really have some challenges here to be competitive,” Little added.
During Thursday’s event, Little was careful to avoid disclosing some of the specific proposals that he will unveil in Monday’s State of the State address. But he made it perfectly clear that property taxes will be an issue he takes on.
“Property taxes and housing affordability will continue to be an issue,” Little said.
“We’ve had back-to-back-to-back increased rebates and decreases in income taxes; I anticipate that property taxes will be… I anticipate that we have got room to do some work there,” Little said.
When asked about whether he supports repealing the sales tax on groceries, Little said he continues to wait for the Legislature to define what “groceries” are and are not. But speaking broadly, Little said he still supports removing the sales tax on food.
GOP legislators urge caution on spending, as Democrat calls for LGBTQ legal protections
The Idaho Legislature’s two highest ranking Republican leaders, Moyle and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, told legislators they have not ruled out reversing the state’s expanded Medicaid program. In November 2018, 60.6% of Idaho voters voted to approve Medicaid expansion via a ballot initiative, which expanded Medicaid eligibility to about 100,000 low-income Idahoans under age 65.
Now five years in, Medicaid expansion is up for review this year, and Winder and Moyle urged caution in spending. Moyle said the Medicaid budget is “out of control” and he and Winder said everything is on the table, including the potential to reverse Medicaid expansion.
“All things are on the table,” Moyle said, before adding he thinks repealing it would be an uphill battle.
“I think obviously it’s going to be discussed; it’s not off the table,” Winder said. I don’t think it’s easily repealed. But I think it is going to have to be looked at from a standpoint of what are the costs …”
House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, called repealing or reversing Medicaid expansion a “nonstarter” and reminded Republican leaders that more than 60% of Idaho voters approved Medicaid expansion in 2018.
“The idea we would walk away from one of the best investments we have ever made as a state doesn’t make sense to me,” Necochea said.
“The people on the other side, the opponents of Medicaid expansion, said that this was going to bankrupt the state,” Necochea added. “We have a $1.6 billion surplus, so don’t tell me that we can’t afford to participate in a program that is yielding tremendous benefits.”
Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, called on the Idaho Legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act to add legal protections for LGBTQ+ Idahoans. Although Idaho Democrats and LGBTQ+ activists and advocates have been pushing for the state to “add the words” for 15 years, the Idaho Legislature has not taken the action. During the 2022 legislative session, former Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, introduced House Bill 440 attempting to add the words. McCrostie couldn’t get a hearing on the bill, so he introduced it as a so-called personal bill outside of the Legislature’s committee process and it never advanced.
Wintrow said it is time to take action, saying some constituents have come to her in fear and expressed desire to leave the state.
“It is time to add protections for folks who are gay, lesbian or transgender in our state,” Wintrow said.