It's that special time of year when men and women from across Idaho gather to throw clout around, stand on soap boxes and increase the supply of hot air in the Boise area. That's right, boys and girls, the Idaho Legislature is back in session.
Just a few days ago, the elected representatives of this fine state opened the 2008 session of the Legislature in its temporary digs in the old Ada County courthouse, now dubbed the Capitol Annex.
While we do love to skewer politicians (almost as much as they like to blame the media), it's important to remember that this group of people has a tremendous amount of power over the daily lives of Idahoans. We are proud to present the Class of 2008—those legislative issues voted most likely to make headlines during the session.
This is in no way a comprehensive list—there are sure to be plenty of topics popping up guaranteed to give a bit of heartburn to politicians and the public alike. Keep an eye out for debates on early childhood education, energy issues including nuclear and renewables, health care, marriage covenants and teacher pay, among others.
These issues tend to create cliques, instigate rivalries, lead to peer pressure and have long-lasting repercussions that only therapy can repair. So dig out your letterman's jacket, find your pom poms and settle in with a different kind of yearbook—one looking forward instead of back.
Most Likely to be a Perpetual Senior: Water
There is one eternal rule in the West: Water is king. People have fought over it, stolen it and even killed for it. It Everyone wants it, but there's not enough of it.
Add a long-lasting drought to the reality that we live in a desert, and you have a combination leading to a showdown in the Legislature.
"In 2008, and for almost every year since statehood, water has been an issue, and in the height of this drought, it will continue to be an issue," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls.
Davis lives in the middle of one of the biggest battlegrounds in the war. For the last year, the issue has been has been argued in court, as surface-water users square off with ground-water users, and senior water rights are put against junior rights.
The economic impact of irrigation shortages in this still largely agricultural state could reach into the millions of dollars, and nothing prompts legislative action quicker than a dollar figure.
Whether it's new restrictions or reparation to farmers who let their fields lie fallow, no one's willing to guess. But Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, thinks it might become a bargaining chip in the urban legislators' fight to get more funding for roads and mass transit.
"Water will be huge," said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. "Bigger than anybody gives it credit for."
One certainty is that this issue isn't likely to graduate anytime soon.
Class Bully: State Budget
It's the issue that overrides everything else. Money, money, money—everyone wants it, and the Legislature holds the purse strings.
There's no shortage of hands being held out with long budgetary wish lists. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna wants $60 million for an across-the-board pay raise for teachers. The Idaho State Department of Corrections wants $60 million to build new jails, and that's nothing compared to the $200 million annual shortfall in the Idaho Transportation Department budget.
But it isn't likely that these financial dreams will become reality, especially in a state where even mentioning raising taxes is a punishable offense.
"There's going to be some tough choices," said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum.
Sure, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has been championing the tightening-the-belt philosophy of government, calling for more financial accountability in every department, but that hasn't stemmed the need for cash.
It's like a parent trying to explain why a teenager should save part of an allowance. The tactic is rarely effective and results in a lot of moping.
Still, the budget will be a top priority for legislators returning to Boise.
"Always, the most important issue we wrestle with is the budget," Davis said. "It will take the most time and require the most focus."
Most Popular: Transportation
It's the issue everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to support. Everyone wants something done about the roads, they just can't seem to agree what to do—local option tax, gas tax increase, more GARVEE bonds?
It's estimated that the Idaho Transportation Department has a $200 million budget shortfall, and the Ada County Highway District isn't doing much better. The result is a wearily overtaxed road system that not only needs expansion, but also repair. Of course, the ruts on Interstate 84 between Meridian and Nampa (often mistaken for the Oregon Trail) do make driving more, um, interesting.
McGee, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said every state is dealing with transportation problems. For him, it's not just a matter of commuting time, but a matter of safety, air quality and economics.
For years, legislators have battled, usually across strict party lines, about how to come up with more money. ITD has recently trimmed $51 million from its budget, and Otter is proposing that the Highway Patrol's annual budget be moved from transportation to the general fund, but that's still not enough.
The idea getting the most attention right now is the local option sales tax, which would give regional authorities the ability to seek voter approval to raise the sales tax to fund specific road and transit projects.
While McGee and other legislators like the idea of the local option tax, no one seems ready to make a call on its ultimate success.
In his State of the State address on Jan. 7, Otter said he would support a local option tax that would pay for roads and bridges. His exclusion of transit wasn't missed by transit supporters or the media.
When asked if the focus on asphalt and concrete means that he would veto any local option bill that included transit, Otter said his statements show what he will support, not what he won't support.
Many are still encouraged by movement toward an answer. "We're getting a lot closer to where we can have an agreement on a local option tax," said Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney.
"The stars seem to be more aligned today than in the past," Davis said.
Otter did recommend an additional $134 million in GARVEE bonds for road projects on Interstate 84 and Highway 30.
Jaquet is decidedly less supportive of the bonds than a local option tax, calling GARVEE a "bottomless pit" since the majority of the $998 million in federal funds is earmarked for projects in and around the Treasure Valley.
McGee, though, is an ardent supporter. "GARVEE bonding is a thoughtful, proven way to build large transportation projects in Idaho," he said.
One thing that seems off the table is an increase in the state gas tax. "The least popular thing you can say right now, as a politician, is 'raise the gas tax.' There is no conceivable way the legislature will pass a gas tax," McGee said. For his part, Otter said he will not ask for an increase in the fuel tax.
Varsity Team: Property Taxes
It's the superstar of statewide issues, throwing its weight around wherever it goes. As property values across the state have skyrocketed, many homeowners are protesting the exponential growth of their tax bills. In some cases, residents are left wondering if they will be able to afford to stay in their own homes.
Last year, the Legislature made the first push onto the property tax field, but with few lasting results. This year the issue is back, and it's bigger than ever before.
Otter said late last year that he would propose a 3 percent cap on the amount a home's value could increase annually, based on the sale price of the home—modeled after California's controversial Proposition 13—but he seems to have backed off that idea.
"Whether the certainty and security we seek for Idaho's homeowners is accomplished by statute or by constitutional amendment doesn't matter," Otter said in the State of the State address.
While most lawmakers are happy to proclaim their willingness to change the system (especially in an election year), many say Otter's proposal would have been a tough sell.
Among these detractors is Davis, who said many of his colleagues in the Senate will have a hard time accepting the idea that two property owners on the same street, with nearly identical houses, would be taxed at different rates.
"The Senate wants to do something aggressive with property taxes," Denney said, although he admits no one knows what needs to happen.
Jaquet said the state does not have a sufficient system of impact fees in place to offset the loss of revenue from Otter's proposal. Instead, she's focusing on a requirement to disclose real estate sales price, giving assessors access to the sale prices of homes in an area to provide a better basis for property values.
Whether any recommendation scores a touchdown is far from a sure thing.
Chess Club: Election Reform
Remember those people in school who were just loud enough, whiny enough and irritating enough that you would do just about anything to shut them up? Closed primaries is that issue for the 2008 Legislature.
Ever since the Idaho State Republican Party adopted rules that call for a closed party primary, the issue has been tying up lawmakers. The opening gambit was made in the Legislature last year, when several different bills were introduced that would have amended state election laws to enact a modified closed primary, allowing independent voters to participate in primaries. When nothing happened, a group of rogue Republicans took the issue to court, filing a lawsuit against the secretary of state. That suit was dismissed for lack of standing, but no one is about to declare a stalemate.
Republican Party leadership has promised to reintroduce legislation this session, although the lawsuit's plaintiffs has sworn to fight anything that isn't an all-out closed primary.
Most players, though, say a modified closed format has the greatest chance of success, since no one really wants to alienate independent voters in a state where most people carry their independent status like a grandmaster's trophy.
"The Legislature is going to look at it," McGee said, joining the chorus of other leading Republicans who swear they'll take some kind of action.
Keith Allred, executive director of The Common Interest, a nonpartisan think tank, is working on legislation for the current session, but Denney said he has yet to see a bill.
With partisan politics in play, it's safe to say that this is going to be one complicated and calculated game.
FFA: Grocery Tax
It's kind of a geeky issue, but one that affects most families.
Since he took office, Gov. Otter has made grocery tax relief for the state's lowest income residents one of his pet causes. The Legislature took up the issue last year, but the bill that came out of the House didn't resemble Otter's bill. Instead of targeting just the low-income sector, House Bill 81 would have increased the food tax credit from $35 to $70 for seniors and from $20 to $50 for most other residents.
Otter apparently didn't like being snubbed, and vetoed the bill.
"Last year, [we were] very disappointed that the bill the Legislature sent was vetoed," Davis said. "We will work hard to find a proposal that can pass this year."
Otter said he will reintroduce his grocery tax bill in the same form as last year's bill. Otter's budget director, Wayne Hammon, said he feels the governor had it right the first time.
Democratic leaders have stated they would like to see the grocery tax addressed, although they would like the relief to come at the cash register rather than on a tax form.
Valedictorian: Air Quality
Everyone is proud to hold this issue up as a shining example of why something needs to be done, regardless of whether the issue is transportation, coal-fired power plants, agricultural burning, economic development or urban planning. It's an issue that's in your face and in your lungs.
The Treasure Valley's growing air-quality problem is impossible to ignore, especially in the middle of an inversion. And with federal money on the line, insiders see discussion coming.
Particulate and ozone levels have been steadily climbing over the years, a fact which many attribute to the increased number of cars in the Treasure Valley. The valley exceeded limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency so many times last year that some experts and political leaders say non-attainment is unavoidable. If the area reaches this point, a plan of action will have to be implemented, or federal highway dollars are at risk.
The Treasure Valley Air Quality Council set forth a series of recommendations to help deal with the problem, including requiring emissions testing in Canyon County, something already done in Ada County.
While Ray Stark, vice president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is working with its peers in Canyon County to build support among political leaders, the effort is still meeting with serious resistance.
"They're quoted in the last [legislative] session that this is an Ada County problem, not a Canyon County problem," Stark said.
McGee said that emissions testing is a tough sell in his district, due partly to the fact that many Canyon County residents feel like they're being told what to do by Ada County. Most people in Ada County like to point out that pollution doesn't seem to respect the county borderlines.
McGee said the Air Quality Commission has many good recommendations, but he prefers capturing fumes when gasoline trucks refill service stations, and a strong education campaign.
"We do need to take some logical steps," McGee said. "Politically feasible first steps."<p> Class Delinquent: Private Prisons
This is one of the kids who smokes behind the bleachers on the football field.
Many feel there's something undeniably shady about an industry that makes a profit by incarcerating people as cheaply as possible—especially one in which the two leading national companies both contributed heavily to the election campaign of a governor in a state where privately owned prisons are illegal.
Otter is currently pushing to change state law to allow these private companies to build facilities in the state, which he said will alleviate overcrowding in state prisons while creating new jobs. The prison operators would be able to make more money by filling open beds with prisoners from other states with overcrowding problems.
Opponents point to the problems Idaho has already experienced by shipping its own prisoners out of state, including claims of poor treatment and abuse that allegedly led to the suicide of one Idaho inmate.
Party lines on this one are as clear as the division between the greasers and the popular kids.
While Republicans have stayed mum on the issue, Democrats have spoken out strongly against the idea. Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennet, D-Ketchum, called the proposal "shortsighted," and said the state's focus should be on programs that prevent repeat criminals, including detox facilities and counseling.
Jaquet echoed his statements, saying that she has no problem with private companies managing a state-owned facility—as is the case at the Idaho Correctional Facility near Kuna—but takes issue with their actually owning the prison.
She, too says the focus should be on prevention, and champions early childhood intervention and an anti-meth campaign. Jaquet said she supports hiring an additional 25 probation officers at a cost of $1 million to work closer with parolees.
This issue is sure to lead to a fight in the Legislature; we just hope it doesn't involve knives and broken bottles. Drag race anyone?
Debate Team: Revolving Door
This one is sure to get a lot of legislators up and pontificating. The Democrats want to require that former lawmakers have to wait at least one year before becoming lobbyists.
They claim that the lack of a cooling-off period amounts to a taxpayer-funded job search in which influence gained through public service leads to major paychecks later.
The Republicans don't see the problem.
"It's more of a solution in search of a problem," Davis said. "I don't see the historical problem in our state."
Davis said he doesn't hear the Democrats complaining when a high-powered political lobbyist joins the staff of a politician. He added that imposing a time requirement is paramount to telling someone who goes into public service that he or she cannot return to their careers after their terms are over.
He worries that this could become a detriment when it comes to attracting quality candidates to the Legislature.
Stennet makes the argument that the state has suffered in the past because of the continuing circle of influence and power that has resulted from the unchecked practice.
"[It's using] public money to help promote careers," he said.
Class Do-Gooder: Dog Fighting
It's not that dog fighting is a good thing, it's the positive, albeit delayed, actions that might come out of this session of the Legislature.
Idaho has the dubious distinction of being one of only two states (Wyoming being the other) dog fighting is only a misdemeanor offense, and attending a dog fight or owning fighting dogs is completely legal.
Legislators have been reluctant to do anything, but everything changed when a certain NFL star's secret life in the dog-fighting world came to light last year. When former Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick was convicted, the issue took the national spotlight, and public outcry arose in Idaho.
Now, several lawmakers are vowing to introduce legislation that would bring Idaho in line with the rest of the nation.