Statehouse roundup, 3.28.17: Legislature passes highway plan

In a potential linchpin to finishing up the 2017 legislative session, the House and Senate passed a last-ditch plan to spend more than $300 million on highways.

After the severe winter of 2017, many legislators have considered a highway-bill a must-have piece of legislation. Tuesday’s vote could pave a path to adjourning the session — perhaps by Wednesday.

Tuesday marks the 79th day of the legislative session. Legislative leaders had hoped to wrap up business last week, but tax and transportation issues extended the session into its 12th week. Education topics were all but wrapped up last week; for example, the $1.7 billion K-12 budget bills passed both houses last week and now sit on Gov. Butch Otter’s desk. Still, one education-related bill emerged in the final throes of the session, and it’s tied to the transportation bill — the House passed a bill designed to provide funding for sidewalks and bike paths near schools.

The larger omnibus highway bill, Senate Bill 1206, would allow the state to issue $300 million in bonds against future federal payments. But one precedent-setting wrinkle of the bill shifts 1 percent of sales tax revenues into highway projects — an estimated $15 million in 2017-18. Debating for the transportation bill Tuesday evening, House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, called the sales tax earmark “a new era for the state of Idaho.”

But the sales tax shift came up several times during Tuesday morning’s two-hour Senate debate, and received mixed reviews.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint

Coupled with a repeal of the sales tax on groceries — also on its way to Otter — the decision to siphon off sales tax money will make it that much tougher to balance the state’s books, said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, cautioned that the sales tax diversion could threaten school funding in the future.

Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder downplayed this concern, placing the $15 million into the context of education budgets that exceed $2 billion in state and federal funding. He described the bill as a delicate concept weeks in the making.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise

“This is the sausage,” said Winder, R-Boise.

A similar batch of sausage proved unpalatable to senators Wednesday. That point wasn’t lost on Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, who recited a light-hearted poem to state his opposition to the second version of highway bill.

But on Tuesday, the second verse was not the same as the first.

Where last week’s bill fell in the Senate on a 15-20 vote, Tuesday’s version cleared the Senate by a 19-16 margin.

Tuesday evening, the House passed the transportation package 51-19.

Meanwhile, a second transportation bill zipped through the House Tuesday afternoon. Senate Bill 1141 would free up $52 million to repair winter-damaged roads and bridges. With the House’s 69-0 vote, it heads to Otter’s desk.

Safe routes to schools

It took some last-minute legislative finagling, but a retooled safe routes to school bill surfaced late Tuesday afternoon, and passed the House just hours later.

After voting to send SB 1206 to the House floor, House Transportation took up a brand-new bill that would enable the Idaho Transportation Department to consider funding pedestrian safety projects.

For the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Janet Trujillo, the issue hits close to home. Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, related the story of her grandson, who was hit by truck while riding his bike home from school a couple of years ago. The boy wasn’t seriously hurt, she said, but he was shaken up — and so  was his mother and grandmother.

“There are many stories like this every day,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo’s safe routes to school bill would allow ITD to use money from SB 1206 for sidewalks and bike paths. As such, the two bills are interrelated.

And by the same token, the new safe routes to school bill could have a built-in funding source: money from SB 1206. That’s significantly different than a previous safe routes to school bill, a nonbinding bill that passed the Senate. That bill would have created a safe routes to school account, but did not specify a funding source.

It’s unusual for House Transportation to consider a new bill late in the session; it is not a “privileged committee” that has the authority to consider new bills throughout the session. Bedke granted the committee authority to consider Trujillo’s proposal. In an interview, Bedke said the move was an attempt to honor a longstanding commitment to legislative Democrats, who have been pushing for funding for safe routes to schools since 2015.

The House passed Trujillo’s House Bill 334 on a 66-3 vote. It would still need to pass the Senate in the final throes of the 2017 session in order to reach Otter’s desk.

Another income tax cut passes the House

For the second time this session, Majority Leader Mike Moyle again convinced colleagues to cut income tax rates.

Moyle, R-Star, attached the income tax language to one of Otter’s top legislative priorities: a bill to cut unemployment taxes for businesses by $115 million over three years. That proposal remains in play. Moyle’s language would reduce all personal and corporate income tax rates by 0.1 percent, a $27.9 million tax cut.

“It’s a small step in the right direction,” Moyle said Tuesday evening, moments before the House passed the amended bill on a 53-17 vote.

Debate was brief. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, argued that the income tax cut threatens the state’s commitment to the career ladder, its five-year plan to boost teacher salaries.

On Feb. 2, the House passed a bill to reduce income tax rates by 0.2 percent across the board, a $51 million tax cut. The Senate never acted on this idea, instead morphing the Moyle’s bill into grocery tax cut bill on the way to Otter’s desk.

The Senate will still have to decide whether to go along with the income tax amendments passed Tuesday evening. The Senate already approved the unemployment tax cuts on a 34-1 vote.

Adult completer scholarship stalls

For the second straight year, lawmakers have rejected Otter’s bid to create a scholarship to encourage adults to return to college.

The “adult completer” scholarship died without fanfare Tuesday afternoon when the House agreed to send the bill back to the House Education Committee. That procedural move effectively kills the bill for the year.

Otter had pushed for the $3 million scholarship program, targeted at adults who go back to college after dropping out.

Otter had argued that the $3,000-a-year scholarship would help the state meet its lofty and probably unattainable “60 percent goal;” by 2020, state leaders want 60 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a postsecondary degree or certificate.

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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