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Rotunda Preview: GOP, Dems Look at Pending Legislative Session Through Different Lens

“I think there's a path forward without doing harm to the local units of government.”

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As Idaho lawmakers look for compromise or, at the very least, some common ground for the pending 2013 Idaho Legislature, GOP leadership - led by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter - and Democratic leadership have already drawn some distinct differences in framing their hopes for the coming months.

At the January 4 Associated Press Legislative Preview, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle offered plenty of grist for the mill: education reforms, ethics and a possible repeal of Idaho's personal income tax. Boise Weekly's Andrew Crisp and Christina Marfice report that Republicans and Democrats have renewed their 2013 differences where they left them in 2012.

GOP Eyes Personal Property Tax Repeal, Education Reform

Reported by Andrew Crisp

The issues facing lawmakers ahead of the 2013 session of the Idaho Legislature, set to begin Monday, Jan. 7, couldn’t be larger: from implementing the Affordable Care Act to dealing with the repeal of Students Come First, better known as the Luna Laws.

Additionally, the Idaho House's newly elected speaker, Oakley Republican Rep. Scott Bedke, points out that many members of the Legislature are new to the job.

“Every other person, nearly, in the House of Representatives is new,” Bedke told a group of reporters today at a legislative preview event arranged by the Associated Press.

There are new faces in the Senate as well, according to President Pro Tempore Sen. Brent Hill of Rexburg, who noted that half of the Legislature’s committees will be led by new chairmen.

“We don’t know what to expect this year,” said Hill. “None of us knows what to expect this year.”

Yet some of that uncertainty will likely be cleared up Monday, Jan. 7, when Idaho’s most prominent Republican, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, delivers his annual State of the State address.

“I will tell you the state of the state is in pretty good shape,” Otter told members of the media today. “It’s in great shape when I compare it to some of the stories of my colleagues in other states.”

Otter joined Republican and Democrat leadership in outlining the issues of the coming months. For Otter, his priorities include issuing what he called a “structurally sound” budget recommendation for the coming year, but he didn’t shy away from talking about policy objectives.

Governor C.L. Butch Otter offered a preview of his State of the State address, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 7.
  • Andrew Crisp
  • Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter spoke today at a legislative preview event arranged by the Associated Press.

Speaker of the House, Oakley Republican Rep. Scott Bedke, left, and President Pro Tempore, Rexburg Republican Sen. Brent Hill, right.
  • Andrew Crisp
  • Speaker of the House Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley, left, and President Pro Tempore Sen. Brent Hill of Rexburg, right.

Referencing the Election Day 2012 repeal of education reforms spearheaded by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Otter said the process was flawed, and was probably not as open as it should have been.

“It’s difficult to establish consensus if you’re only talking to yourself or a couple of other folks,” he said.

Speaking after the governor, Hill and Bedke said lawmakers would be tasked with mending problems left in the wake of voter's decisions Nov. 6.

“There are some consequences with the repeal of the education reform laws that left some schools hanging, that left some school teachers hanging, and we need to rectify that,” Hill said.

Without citing specifics, Hill said the future of the education reform debate would need to focus on making decisions with stakeholder input, while focusing on students. Otter and Republican leadership also mentioned a proposal that critics say could leave schools in the lurch, a push to do away with the state’s personal property tax.

“I will be addressing what my idea might be in the State of the State budget,” Otter said. “I think there's a path forward without doing harm to the local units of government.”

On personal property tax repeal, Hill and Bedke were less willing to discuss details. Hill said the process would require evaluating input from cities, counties and the public.

“We’ve got lots of different variables, and to come to a compromise, something we can live with, it’s going to be a lot of different dials,” said Hill.

When asked if he personally supported doing away with the personal property tax, Bedke was inclined to defer to his new position as speaker.

“I have 57 perfectly good Republican caucus members, and they think they’re the best person to sit in that seat,” said Bedke. “And I want to see what they have to say.”

Dems Push Back on GOP Plans for Education, Personal Property Tax

Reported by Christina Marfice

As Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and GOP leadership stood before a gathering of Idaho's Statehouse press corps on Friday, Gem State Democrats patiently waited to counterpoint the GOP's outlook for the pending legislative session, expected to include new education reforms and the possibility of phasing out Idaho's personal property taxes. And when House Minority Leader Rep. John Rusche ultimately got his opportunity to speak, he said the wishes of too many Idahoans weren't being heard.

“We’ve heard frustration and, yes, some anger that politicians aren’t listening,” said Rusche. “People want communities that work, they want opportunity for their families and their futures and, of course, they want their legislators to listen to them. We’ll be working on that.”

Democratic leadership remained surprisingly silent compared to their Republican counterparts, in an initial discussion on healthcare, dominated by GOP House Speaker Scott Bedke Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill. Rusche and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett chose to whithold their remarks. And although Rusche and Stennett both mentioned education in their initial statements, they largely abstained from the discussion on education reform later in the panel.

The subject of legislative ethics, however, prompted some of the strongest remarks from Democratic leadership. While Bedke contended that ethical problems within the legislature were more often an issue of oversight than of willful wrongdoing, Stennett argued that Idaho lags in ethics legislation.

“Last year we did a great deal on ethics and tried to get an independent ethics commission in place. We felt very seriously about it, because there was a lack of understanding or a willfulness of not following rules within the House and the Senate,” she said. “We were unable to come to a resolution, but I feel very strongly about continuing conversation about having something in place that’s very firm. We’re one of few states that doesn’t have an independent ethics commission and we should.”

Dems also pushed back against GOP leadership's desire to peal back Idaho’s much-discussed personal property tax.

“I’m really hopeful that we give our small businesses a break and we spur the economy in doing that and come to some middle ground instead of just repealing, said Stennett, adding that some of her constituents reside in counties that are as much as 50 percent funded by Idaho’s $135 million in revenue from personal property tax. “You have to be pretty thoughtful about the impacts of this tax.”

Rusche agreed.

“We’ve talked about doing this incrementally — a little bite at a time and that’s how we can afford it. But that’s shifting money away from the other, necessary functions of government: public schools, corrections, public safety,” he said, calling the tax a “tough problem” for the incoming legislature. “There’s got to be a way to pay for it.”

Rusche’s remarks became more heated during the discussion surrounding funding a partial or complete repeal of the personal property tax with funding that has been shelved in the wake of voter's repeal of the Luna Laws on November 6.

“When the voters spoke, they said that there’s $45 million that you don’t need to spend in public schools, if you want to interpret it that way,” said Bedke. “We have money without a policy to spend it on. In this era of how we’re going to pay for personal property tax, it’s no secret there are people who are eying some of this money.”

But Rusche argued that Democrats were "adamantly opposed to that."

"Funding for public schools is still below where it was four years ago," he said."If the schools need that money, it makes sense to reappropriate that in a manner that allows them to use it. I think the outrage over taking money for public schools and using it to pay off personal property tax is something that not only our caucus but others would find objectionable.”

Stennett said while Democrats remain a sizeable minority in both the House and Senate, she's optimistic for growth.

“I think what we need to do here as we move forward is to keep in mind what the voters have spoken, and try to do the best we can to honor the message that they’re sending to us.” she said.

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