On Monday, lawmakers will come to the Statehouse with money in the bank and politics on the brain.
A projected record-setting $1.6 billion surplus could allow lawmakers to cross a lot of items on the checklist: tax cuts, all-day kindergarten, teacher pay raises, infrastructure. They could easily address some of these items, and all of them, really. The money is there.
But money doesn’t buy happiness. It doesn’t buy a smooth, seamless legislative session either.
Instead, the 2022 legislative session could make for epic political theater. Big fights over the budget. Old fights over facemasks, science standards and claims of pervasive “indoctrination” in schools. All played out against the backdrop of a high-stakes election year — with every state office and all 105 legislative seats on the ballot.
If only we could put a little of that $1.6 billion towards popcorn. Oh well. Bring your own and hunker down.
There’s an old rule of thumb around the Statehouse: Sessions often run long and get heated when times are good, when there’s plenty of cash on hand. When the state can afford pretty much anything, the theory goes, every lawmaker comes to town with definite ideas about what to do with the windfall.
That theory will probably play out this session. But there’s more to the story.
Lawmakers aren’t exactly sure why they’re sitting on all of this money. They see the numbers, but they don’t trust them.
This was quickly evident Thursday morning, when the Legislature’s Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee began its work. This House-Senate committee has the job of trying to predict how much money the Legislature can spend. A year ago, the committee’s projection came in nearly $1 billion short of actual revenues.
The committee seemed to start its work well aware of the failings of forecast. Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, sought some hard (and hard to get) answers about how much of the surplus comes from one-time federal coronavirus stimulus money. Noting that every other state also received a huge influx of federal aid, Boise Republican Sen. Fred Martin asked, “Why are we doing so well?”
There are several factors — beyond just those federal revenues, which swelled from $3.4 billion in 2019-20 to an eye-popping $5 billion in 2020-21. Idaho has led the nation in population growth for five consecutive years. Correspondingly, Idaho’s housing market is booming. November’s unemployment rate fell to a minuscule 2.6%. In other words, plenty of in-state indicators point to a churning economy.
And while Idaho is certainly in better shape than most other states, lawmakers are navigating a strange economy, Boise State University political science professor Jaclyn Kettler said this week. Many of their constituents are feeling the effects of inflation, she noted. Likewise, in every legislative district, employers are struggling to find the workers they need to operate at full capacity.
If lawmakers don’t believe in this surplus — and its unfathomable $1.6 billion enormity — they might be reluctant to commit $40 million or so a year to fully fund all-day kindergarten at the state level. Legislators are loath to start long-term programs with one-time money, and that’s sensible.
But budget decisions aren’t always based on macroeconomics. They’re often visceral. And if 2021 is prelude, expect more of those from-the-gut or from-the-hip decisions during the theater of the 2022 session.
Last year, lawmakers stymied a $6 million-a-year early education initiative. They also cut $2.5 million from the university budgets. Neither decision had one iota to do with balancing the books; for one thing, a federal grant was in hand to cover the early education program. In both cases, lawmakers reacted to what they see as creeping leftist leaning in education, from the pre-K to the postsecondary levels.
It contributed to what Idaho Business for Education CEO and longtime Statehouse observer Rod Gramer called the worst legislative session he could remember. It’s not impossible for this Legislature to do a 180. But first, he said, lawmakers have to leave an Oz of their own making, a place where they are mired in ideology.
“It would be great to bring people back and have an honest debate about how we’re going to help kids get literate by the fourth grade,” Gramer said in an Idaho Education News podcast, which aired Friday. “And we’ve got this money. I mean, we have a historic opportunity to invest in education.”
Education groups are making all-day kindergarten a priority for 2022, and politically, that seems shrewd. All-day kinder has support even from some conservative lawmakers — such as Rep. Judy Boyle, a Midvale Republican who often aligns with the ideological hardliners. She sees state funding as a way to move the price of kindergarten off of the local property tax. Boyle could be an unlikely but valuable ally to education and business leaders, who have long touted the academic benefits of all-day kindergarten.
“I can find hardly anyone who really doesn’t believe that parents should be able to send their kids to full-day kindergarten, if they want to,” Idaho School Boards Association deputy director Quinn Perry said on this week’s podcast.
The surplus even gives lawmakers a chance to aim higher. After putting another $44.9 million into the teacher salary career ladder in 2021, they have enough money to double down and approve two years’ worth of salary increases this year, Idaho Education Association public policy director Matt Compton said.
But after 2021, Compton would settle for a session that doesn’t undermine and devalue the teaching profession.
“Respect actually doesn’t have a fiscal note, so it’s rather inexpensive for the Legislature to dole out,” Compton said on this week’s podcast.
Perhaps education groups will get what they’re hoping for this year — investments that would support students and attract educators. Perhaps lawmakers will find themselves comfortable with the surplus, and willing to plow new money into all-day kindergarten or salaries.
But it doesn’t cost legislators a nickel to play to the politics of the moment. So as the election year begins, look for lawmakers to rail against the usual targets: local mask mandates, and other in-school pandemic protocols; Common Core and science standards; hot-button catchphrases such as social-emotional learning.
The 2022 legislative session could be defined by money. And, perhaps, punctuated by mayhem.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.
Coming Friday: Look for the Kevin Richert Podcast, previewing the 2022 legislative session.