Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Local legislators discuss priorities

2014 session to begin Jan. 6

Express Staff Writer

    Two of Blaine County’s three state representatives said their personal priority, as well as that of the Legislature as a whole, during the 2014 session will be to restore state funding to education.
    The Legislature will convene on Monday, Jan. 6.
    “I think education is going to be the biggest issue as far as what people are talking about now,” said Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield. “What I hear from leadership is that education’s going to get the lion’s share of the new money that’s going to be available.”
    Speaking to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho’s annual meeting in Boise on Dec. 11, Gov. Butch Otter said his draft budget would include a revenue increase of 3 to 3.5 percent. Otter is scheduled to present his proposed budget to the Legislature on Jan. 6.
    Miller said he expects about two-thirds of the anticipated $90 million revenue increase to go toward education.
    Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said a bipartisan bill is being drafted to implement the recommendations of a Task Force for Improving Education convened by Otter in December 2012. The task force released a report in September containing 21 recommendations, one of which was to restore $82.5 million in operational funding for public school districts that has been gradually cut since 2009.
    “It’s forced our local districts to get supplemental levies, which is leading to inequities in school funding,” Pence said. “Rural counties can’t raise enough.”
    Pence said the draft bill is gaining widespread support, though she acknowledged that the estimated $350 million price tag for implementing all the task force’s recommendations will not be found in one year. She said the recommendations will probably have to be phased in over several years.
    According to a Dec. 11 column by Kevin Richert in the Idaho Statesman, State Schools Superintendent Tom Luna has proposed spending an additional $16.5 million this year toward reinstating budget cuts. However, Richert reported, Cathy Holland-Smith of the state’s Legislative Services Office told key lawmakers that it would take a 5 percent revenue increase to cover all 2014-15 agency budget requests, including Luna’s K-12 budget plan—more than Otter’s draft budget proposes. Richert reported that Otter has suggested a five-year phase-in.
    Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she supports the task force’s recommendations, but expressed less optimism that they would be transformed into law in 2014.
    “I don’t think anything that requires money will be supported in this session at all,” she said.
    Both Stennett and Pence said another goal for them is providing more money for the Transportation Department’s maintenance expenses.
    “It worries me to no end that we’re delaying things on our roads and bridges,” Pence said. “We’re just asking for problems later. I’d hate to see us wait another year.”
    Stennett said the Transportation Department needs an additional $281 million per year to adequately fund its maintenance needs, and called that funding “critical,” but, again, expressed pessimism that the Legislature would act on it during the upcoming session.
    Pence said she would also like to restore cuts to other agency budgets.
    “State agencies have been cut to the bone,” she said. “Some of our agencies may not be able to meet statutory requirements.”
    Pence said that if the Legislature is unwilling to fund agencies at an amount sufficient to carry out their responsibilities, it should amend the laws to reduce those responsibilities.
    Stennett said she expects the Legislature to take up the issue of its $29 million contract with the Corrections Corp. of America, which operates the Idaho Correctional Center in Kuna. She said the prison has been understaffed due to the company’s low wage scale, and the state will need to either agree to a higher-priced contract or run the facility itself, but both options are out of reach financially. She pointed out that Idaho has a low crime rate but a high per-capita rate of incarceration.
    “We’ve put a lot of people in jail and we can’t afford to do that,” she said.
    Miller said he expects the Legislature to provide the Department of Water Resources with money to undertake groundwater-recharge projects. He said he thinks that effort will include long-term planning of the entire Snake River aquifer. Though he acknowledged that Gooding and Lincoln counties would be more directly affected than Blaine County, he said water calls along the Snake River might eventually affect Wood River Valley irrigators.
    “A lot of things are being looked at regarding water storage and recharge,” he said, including increasing the capacity of Island Park and Arrow Rock reservoirs.
    Miller said he also thinks the Legislature will consider a bill to tax Internet sales through a new local option tax, which would require municipalities to specify projects before imposing a sales tax to fund them. He said he’d have to see the details of such a proposal before supporting the idea, but called it “an interesting project.”

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