Analysis: Two new committee chairs jump into the spotlight

If you’re interested in education — and the tax structure that supports Idaho’s school system — keep one eye on the new chair of the House Education Committee, and one eye on the new chair of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee.

When the 2017 legislative session opens on Jan. 9, Rep. Julie VanOrden and Sen. Dan Johnson figure to assume prominent roles in some thorny K-12 and tax policy debates.

VanOrden’s appointment Thursday came as no real surprise. And by promoting vice chairwoman VanOrden to head House Education, GOP leadership signaled a desire to stay the course.

Julie VanOrden
Rep. Julie VanOrden, the new chair of the House Education Committee

VanOrden, R-Pingree, has four years’ experience on the committee, as well as nearly a decade’s experience on her local school board. Perhaps more importantly, she supports the state’s high-profile education efforts — such as the career ladder to boost teacher pay, and the latest incarnation of Idaho’s literacy initiative. She talked Thursday about continued progress on the recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force, a five-year plan dating back to 2013.

That’s not to say K-12 policy is on autopilot. The third year of the career ladder, and its $58 million price tag, could draw scrutiny at the Statehouse. VanOrden also predicted a debate over school choice, prompted by President-elect Donald Trump’s interest in the issue. That could make for some tense and long hearings in VanOrden’s committee.

Still, VanOrden’s promotion promises continuity — at least at the outset. But an unexpected change on the Senate side of the Rotunda carries a little more intrigue.

Siddoway New
Sen. Jeff Siddoway

Sen. Jeff Siddoway will no longer chair Senate Local Government and Taxation, although he’ll remain on the committee and now heads the Senate’s influential State Affairs Committee.

Siddoway, R-Terreton, positioned himself as a backstop on tax policy in recent sessions — pledging to block tax cuts until he believed education received adequate funding. For Siddoway, the issue hit home, as he watched schools in rural East Idaho lose teachers to higher-paying jobs in nearby Wyoming. And this stance put Siddoway at odds with some other powerful people — and prompted a famously profane email from Alex LaBeau, the head of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, a business lobbying group.

“I assume there are a lot of people who are celebrating that I’m not tax chairman any more,” Siddoway told Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review Thursday.

Dan Johnson
Sen. Dan Johnson

However, Siddoway also told Russell that his successor has similar concerns about education funding. And Johnson, R-Lewiston, is no stranger to the K-12 budget; he was vice chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee before shifting gears to take over the tax committee.

There’s plenty of pent-up desire for tax cuts on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee — the jumping-off point for tax legislation. In past sessions, the House has passed tax cuts that have died a swift death in Siddoway’s committee.

What happens in 2017, with Johnson at the helm? Idahoans will probably find out soon enough.

On Wednesday, Otter as much as predicted a big debate over tax cuts next session. At the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho’s annual conference, Otter pledged to keep an open mind to the myriad tax proposals likely to come from legislators — but said he wasn’t planning to weigh in with a bill of his own.

While Otter waits, watch for a showdown between the soft-spoken Johnson and some of the House’s more vocal tax hawks.

Coming later Friday: Clark Corbin and I will discuss the Legislature’s organizational session in our weekly “Extra Credit” podcast.



Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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