Analysis: The Legislature returns, and we pretty much know how this movie will end

Sorry to give away the ending, but Gov. Brad Little will most likely get his way.

Sometime Thursday, or maybe Friday, lawmakers will probably pass Little’s ambitious one-and-done special session bill. Barring the unforeseen, they will pump another $410 million a year into education, green-light $500 million in one-shot tax refunds and roll back income taxes by more than $150 million a year.

Then they’ll go home. Roll the credits.

We pretty much know how this movie will end, because this movie is a remake. 

Almost 16 years to the day after then-Gov. Jim Risch hauled lawmakers back into Boise for a one-day special session focused on school funding, Little has scripted up his own special session. And again, education funding is going to be at the heart of the debate.

Little is doing no small amount of borrowing here.

He may deny it, but his plan to boost K-12 spending by $330 million a year looks unmistakably like Reclaim Idaho’s voter initiative, which would pump an identical sum of income tax increases into schools. And his special session follows the Risch formula almost to the letter.

Trust me, y’all. I was there for the 2006 one-day special session, and I’ll be back on Thursday. I probably won’t be able to commute to the Statehouse in a time-traveling DeLorean, but you can’t always get what you want.

And even if you don’t want to take my word for it, take it from another longtime observer of Idaho politics. In an editorial last week — headlined “Calling Yogi Berra: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again” — the Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase ran through several pieces of the Risch/Little checklist.

  • Write up a far-reaching bill.
  • Line up the votes in advance.
  • Entertain no alternatives.
  • Jam the whole thing through when lawmakers, and everyday Idahoans, are just trying to squeeze the last drops of lemonade from summer.
  • Preempt a citizens’ initiative on school funding.
  • Run on the finished product come November.

Little has seen this movie before too. After all, he was there in 2006. As a state senator, he voted for the Risch bill.

Like Risch before him, Little knows that the rules for a special session heavily favor the governor. Only the governor can call legislators back into session (although lawmakers hope to change that, with a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot). And the governor gets to set the agenda.

That means a governor only calls a special session when he has a specific bill in hand — and the votes to pass it.

Little is getting there a little bit differently than Risch. The 2006 bill passed with almost exclusively Republican support, as Risch effectively wrote off Democrats. This time, Little has stitched together a quirky bipartisan coalition — including conservative Republicans such as Reps. Sage Dixon of Ponderay, Brent Crane of Nampa and Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls, and Democrats such as Rep. Ilana Rubel of Boise and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking of Boise. In essence, Little is writing off the hardline faction of his own party, the far-right adherents who align most closely to the Idaho Freedom Foundation. A shrewd calculation, on Little’s part.

And ultimately, it’s all about lining up the votes, and Little appears to have done his legwork. He has 37 House co-sponsors, just enough to get his bill through the 70-member chamber. He has a lot more breathing room in the Senate, where 25 of 35 senators are on board. He also has comfortable majorities in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee.

There will be theatrics and some procedural snarls — making for a long one-day session Thursday, or a wrapup on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. But the outcome looks like a fait accompli.

Not to worry. You’ll get a chance to weigh in, after the fact. Little’s bill also would place an advisory question on the Nov. 8 ballot. Here it is, verbatim:

Do you approve or disapprove of the State of Idaho using the record budget surplus to refund $500 million back to hardworking Idaho taxpayers, cut ongoing income taxes by more than $150 million, and put more money in our classrooms by increasing education and student funding by a record $410 million?

“Your approval of this effort would combat historic inflation by returning money to taxpayers, creating a simple flat tax, and making the single largest investment in public education in Idaho history.”

Little isn’t asking voters whether this is a great special session or the greatest special session. But he may as well.

Again, this is straight from the Risch script. He placed a similarly loaded question on the November 2006 ballot — and still likes to boast that it passed in every precinct in Idaho.

And Little’s plan mirrors Risch’s plan in one very substantial way: It leans heavily on the sales tax.

The new $410 million for education would come straight from the sales tax. The bill contains a 3% annual multiplier, so it banks on continued growth in sales tax collections. Proponents of Little’s bill argue that the sales tax is a stable funding source — and after dropping for two years during the Great Recession, sales tax collections have steadily increased ever since.

In 2006, Risch was so confident in the sales tax that he actually increased it. His tax overhaul rolled back $260 million in school property tax collections; raising the sales tax rate from 5% to 6%, he planned on $210 million in new sales taxes to cover most of the property tax cut.

Many educators — and some legislative Republicans — cautioned against shifting from an unpopular but stable property tax to the sales tax. And sure enough, the Great Recession brought a drop in sales tax collections. Meanwhile, the Risch tax shift coincided with a proliferation in voter-approved supplemental property tax levies. The net result, as we reported in 2016, was not the promised tax cut, but actually a tax increase.

With a critical mass of legislative co-sponsors — and backing from education lobbyists and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry — Little’s bill appears greased to go. This reboot appears destined to go according to script. But it will take years to see if the tax changes, and the investments in education, actually work as billed.

Coming Thursday: Check back for full coverage of the special session.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s analysis was published on Monday, Aug. 29.

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]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday