Analysis: How Season 2022 of the Legislature will end (spoiler alert)

Everybody hates a spoiler, but here’s how Season 2022 of the Idaho Legislature is going to end.

After lawmakers figure out what to do with a projected $1.9 billion surplus, a state record, no one is going to walk away completely satisfied.

That’s what happens when expectations are high. And that’s what’s going to happen when this session ends.

K-12 will certainly see an influx of cash — and possibly even the historic increase Gov. Brad Little has promised. But Idaho won’t suddenly rocket out of the cellar, when it comes to per-pupil spending. Idaho’s ever-growing supplemental levy property tax bill isn’t likely to vanish overnight, either.

Idaho’s three universities and one four-year college might receive a larger budget increase than they have in recent years. Or not, since Idaho’s higher education budget debate is more about ideology than it is about the dollars.

Lawmakers might go back to their tax-cutting playbook, and approve Little’s plan for $600 million in income tax rebates and reductions. The largest tax cut in state history won’t be enough to satisfy the Statehouse’s tax hawks.

It’s a no-excuses session, but also a high-expectations session. Politicians and special interest groups across the spectrum have spent the past few months spending this surplus in their heads. How this surplus is spent — in reality, and over these next few weeks — cannot quite measure up.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle was in the position of playing the expectation game.

Presenting Little’s income tax proposal to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, Moyle said the bill doesn’t close the door on other tax cuts — such as property tax cuts. And as a grandfather with kids in Idaho schools, Moyle rejected the argument that the income tax cuts would mortgage education, noting that the $251 million in ongoing tax relief comes in below Little’s proposed $300 million increase in the K-12 budget.

“We’re going to take care of education,” said Moyle, R-Star. “We have money to do it all.”

But even if the state does wind up with a $1.9 billion surplus, a $600 million tax cut still packs a considerable opportunity cost. The $600 million is money Little and the Legislature wouldn’t be able to use elsewhere. That helps explain the criticism of the tax bill from both sides — from Democrats who say this latest income cut again favors the wealthy, and from conservatives such as Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, who likened the bill to “bread crumbs.”

Now, to be fair, $600 million buys a lot of bread crumbs, still subject to Idaho’s sales tax on groceries. And even as lawmakers waxed on about other unpopular taxes — the grocery tax, property taxes — the House Thursday passed the income tax cuts on 57-13 vote. Burley Republican Rep. Fred Wood joined the 12 Democrats in opposition.

We know how this plotline will resolve itself. This bill will almost certainly pass, returning $600 million to taxpayers and taking $600 million off the table — to the delight of not too many people around the Statehouse.

That’s the kind of session we’re looking at.

Little’s education budgets are packed with some big-ticket items.

  • Another $104 million to boost teacher salaries, and $17.8 million for teacher bonuses.
  • A plan to put another $105 million a year into school employees’ health benefits.
  • A $50 million household education grant program.
  • A $47 million plan to fund, and expand, all-day kindergarten.
  • A $22.3 million increase in the higher education budget — the largest single-year budget increase, in raw dollars, since at least 1984, and quite likely the largest such increase in state history, said Alex Adams, head of Little’s Division of Financial Management.

The state only gets to spend this money once. And lawmakers won’t spend it to everyone’s liking.

When the House Education Committee walked through Little’s budget proposal Wednesday morning, Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, questioned Adams about lost opportunities. He asked why the K-12 budgets do nothing to finally address school facilities, bankrolled by local property taxes. Adams said the K-12 budgets will take the pressure off local property tax levies, by boosting salaries and benefits and funding all-day kindergarten.

Berch conceded the point, but remained skeptical. “I was hoping there would be room to deal with bonds as well as levies.”

A lot of these education line items could end up passing. An all-day kindergarten bill might pass — even if it isn’t comprehensive enough to satisfy Democrats, and even if it faces resistance from early education skeptics. One piece of school employees’ benefits legislation passed in a House committee Wednesday, despite opposition from conservatives. A higher ed budget would have to overcome objections from conservatives who want ideologically driven spending cuts — and come up short for Idahoans who want to shift more of the cost of college off the shoulders of students and parents.

A historic year for education could go way too far for some lawmakers, and not nearly far enough for others.

High expectations, unmet. That looks like Season 2022 of the Idaho Legislature, the mini-review. There will be some plot twists and some comedic moments, perhaps unintentional and perhaps awkward. But we know where this series is going.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

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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