Idaho Legislature: Numbers and More Numbers

by Judy Ferro

A proposed 5000% increase in a fine made me acutely aware of the numbers in the 40+ bills before the legislature.

There are good news numbers, like the proposed $29 million transfer from the Catastrophic Health Care Cost Fund to the General Fund. For the past two years, Idaho taxpayers have paid hospitals about $15 million less a year for care for the impoverished.

It’s undoubtedly the result of 87,000 more Idahoans having health insurance. Now, if legislators would allow the Federal government to subsidize insurance for 78,000 Idahoans who work for low wages, we might save double that. I know, I know. It’s the principle of the thing: if people want health care cheap, they shouldn’t work. If we allow working people the benefits of those on welfare, everyone will want a job, and there aren’t enough to go around now.

That isn’t what legislators are thinking? You can’t tell differently by their votes on health insurance.

Another good number: nearly $30 million in tax savings that aren’t quite tax cuts. The Federal government chose to extend a number of tax breaks, and Idaho’s legislature is expected to go along. Over $22 million of the tax savings would benefit businesses who may deduct up to $500,000 of capital investments rather than depreciating the cost over a number of years. (There was a time that we were spreading the deduction for a desk over a decade.)

As tax filing starts, Idaho law only allows deducting $75,000 in capital investment; many businesses may save by waiting for the legislature to act. Others who should consider postponing filing are K-12 school teachers with out-of-pocket expenses, those who’ve paid college tuition or mortgage insurance, those who’ve built energy-efficient commercial buildings, and those with underwater mortgages.

I can only imagine the hair pulling at the Tax Commission as they revised Idaho forms to reflect differences in Federal/State deductions while expecting everything would have to be changed again when the legislature acted.

Two proposals have to do with environmental protection. Senate bill 1197 would increase the bond to ensure proper reclamation of a surface mine from $2,500 to $15,000 per acre. Apparently, it’s getting harder to get rid of cyanide or sulfuric acid, and people don’t like the stuff.

Abandoned mines are a problem in fourteen Western states. A recent Boise Weekly article quoted Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League as saying that Idaho has about 5,000 mines built over 60 years ago that are abandoned. BLM estimates the cost of making each safe at $20,000 to $30,000.

Oppenheimer pointed out that, if Idaho ever did take over Federal lands, taxpayers would be responsible for $1 billion to clean up old mines on top of the $1.5 billion per decade to fight wildfires.

James Robison, also with the Conservation League, said tailings from the Thompson Creek Mine outside of Challis now leak sulfuric acid which the company captures and recycles. If the company went bankrupt, however, its current $42 million bond would not cover the cost of an actual cleanup.

And that 5,000% increase? The House State Affairs committee refused bill status to the Public Utilities Commission proposal to raise the maximum fine for pipeline safety violations. Legislators thought that an increase from $2,000 to $100,000 a day would make us look like money grabbers. They ignored Commissioner Paul Kjellander suggestion that having a fine just 1-2% that of surrounding states would make us look irresponsible. Idaho is now probably solidly last on any plans for pipeline maintenance.

Just 100 or so more bills to go.