Our legislature must decide whether to meet Idaho’s needs 

Can you believe the legislature is back in session this week? My door is open, birds are singing, and the pale green of new leaves fills the horizon. Trays of seeds are sprouting; summer is coming.     

Usually, the legislature has adjourned by early April, but now members are returning to an outsized load of unfinished business.  A record number of bills for April–200–have passed one house and not the other.  

And there’s talk of allowing introduction of a new bill to fund all-day kindergarten. New bills are a rule-breaker at this time, but many are rooting for this one. First grade teachers face a large gap between their highest and lowest students and cannot hope to meet the needs of them all. Kids who start first grade knowing how to hold scissors and recognize letters have a better school experience and develop higher expectations for themselves. 

This bill’s proof that some legislators care about Idaho. Too bad bills to increase the homeowners’ property tax exemption and to end the sales tax on groceries don’t have a chance.

Instead we have HB 322, a bill to lower income taxes by 0.125% for the lowest bracket and up to 0.425% for the highest, with a first-year bonus of $50 or 9% of state taxes paid in 2019, whichever is higher. 

After I attacked that bill costing $390 million–$780 million with a Federal take-back–a reader asked if taxpayers who paid in more than was spent didn’t deserve their money back.   

My answer–I’ll never consider Idaho as having a surplus as long as we’re last in the nation in funding education. We should be demanding we’re above the bottom 10. Our kids need–and deserve–that.  

I once had a brittle wall screen that was mended with duct tape. A student went to pull it down for me, and the bottom tore off in his hand; the screen rolled up with such force that it jumped from the nails, and the heavy metal housing fell on him. And when the district couldn’t afford to replace my bent room key, a janitor had to come open and lock my room each day–and I couldn’t leave for lunch.      

And then, in 2009-2010, the legislature cut the education budget 20% more. 

We’ve become conditioned to accept oversized classes. Only Michigan has a higher average for the number in elementary classrooms. Idaho’s average is six students larger than those in Georgia, Maine, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont–and nearly 10 students larger than our own average for secondary classes. 

Teaching requires listening–if you don’t know why a student doesn’t understand, you can’t help them. More students means less knowledge of each one. And more students means fewer activities and more “sit and face forward’.      

A friend’s recent post on Facebook made it clear that the schools aren’t alone in being neglected.  

“There are critical shortages of staff at the Department of Health and Welfare in child protection.

“There’s a critical increase in abuse cases and severity of cases.

“There’s an increase of abuse resulting in ICU and hospital stays.

 “There’s a lack of beds for substance abuse treatment.  

“There’s a critical shortage of mental health care for adults and children.

“There’s a shortage of social workers and mental health workers in schools.

“There’s a critical shortage of professionals who serve children with disabilities. I assume the same is true for adults with disabilities.”

Federal Covid-19 funds can’t be used for ongoing expenses, but our surplus can. Why aren’t more people angry that Idaho legislators underfund schools and services so they can cut income taxes for the weathy again?      

Three extra weeks to stop bad bills

Is anyone else fantasizing about the legislature simply calling it quits for the year?  

Members have already passed 144 bills, and most of the 200 bills still alive one week before their planned adjournment would have died anyway.    

It can’t happen of course. There are over 20 appropriations bills to be passed.  And the House really needs to accept the $6 million federal grant for reading readiness programs for preschoolers. (Personal note–those who think 4-year-olds can be indoctrinated need to spend more time with one.)

But for every bill that should be passed, there’s another one that could harm Idaho. Some are petty, like requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to change the name of Cleveland Blvd. to Caldwell Blvd. or forbidding a school board to mention in a ballot description whether It’s asking more or less money than in the previous year. 

But some bills could cause great harm. 

SB1110 would interfere with voters’ rights under the Idaho Constitution by making Idaho’s requirements for getting an initiative or referendum impossible without major outside funding.  

And why? The only initiative or referendum passed here in the past eight years was Medicare Expansion, which has not only saved lives, but saved the state millions of dollars during this pandemic. 

If legislators cared about Idahoans, they would be making initiatives easier, not more difficult.    

And another bill will ensure that Idaho can’t increase spending on education, infrastructure, or services for years. HB 332 was introduced late and passed by the House two days later on a straight party line. Some call it Idaho’s biggest tax cut ever. It will cost $780 million–$390 million in income tax cuts and a second $390 million cut in Federal COVID relief funds. For every dollar going to an Idahoan, another will go out-of-state.   

And HB 322 is a good example why the Feds are forbidding using their money for income tax cuts–such cuts don’t get money circulating locally and quickly.  Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, calculates that, after year one, a family of four with $25,000 in income would get $13 from the tax cut and one with $1 million in income would get over $10,000. Much of the latter would go into savings.  

HB 322 would cut Income tax rates by 0.125% for the lowest bracket and up to 0.425% for the highest. In addition, the first year each Idahoan would receive a one-time payment of $50 or 9% of state taxes paid in 2019, whichever is higher.  

Reminder–only seven states have lower tax rates than Idaho. Forty-nine states spend more on education. 

A majority of our legislature seems determined to underfund public schools. During the past five years we Idahoans have taxed ourselves over $2 billion in bonds and levies to subsidize the state funding for schools–and some legislators want to stop that. Now, figuring they have an extra $780 million, they’re ready to send half of it back to the federal government? 

Our legislators apparently don’t understand that employers planning to pay good wages seek out areas with schools that employees will want for their kids.  Idaho’s chosen instead to advertise its low taxes and cheap wages. And today, Idaho still has both the worst funded schools and the most workers making minimum wage.  

We’ve got three weeks to tell legislators that we want schools funded well enough that districts don’t have to add to our property taxes. We should also ask for an increase in the homeowners’ exemption so inflated housing prices don’t force people out of their homes. 

And do remind them that they represent us.