Everyone hates a spoiler, but here’s how the 2022 Idaho Legislature season is going to end.
Once lawmakers figure out what to do with a projected $1.9 billion surplus, a state record, no one will walk away completely satisfied.
That’s what happens when expectations are high. And that is what will happen at the end of this session.
K-12 is sure to see an influx of cash — and possibly even the historic boost promised by Gov. Brad Little. But Idaho won’t suddenly come out of the cellar, in terms of expenditure per student. Idaho’s ever-growing additional property tax bill is also not expected to disappear overnight.
Idaho’s three universities and a four-year college could receive a larger budget increase than in recent years. Or not, since the debate over Idaho’s higher education budget is more about ideology than dollars.
Lawmakers could go back to their tax cut playbook and approve Little’s plan for $600 million in income tax refunds and cuts. The biggest tax cut in state history won’t be enough to satisfy the tax hawks at the Statehouse.
It’s a session with no excuses, but also a session with high expectations. Politicians and special interest groups from all walks of life have spent the last few months spending that surplus on their heads. How that surplus is spent — in reality, and over the next few weeks — can’t quite measure up.
On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle was in a position to play the expectation game.
Presenting Little’s income tax proposal to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, Moyle said the bill did not close the door to other tax cuts, such as property tax cuts. And as a grandfather with kids in Idaho schools, Moyle dismissed the argument that income tax cuts are mortgaging education, noting that the $251 million in tax breaks are less than Little’s proposed $300 million increase in the K-12 budget.
“We’re going to take care of the education,” Moyle, R-Star, said. “We have money to do everything.”
But even if the state ends up with a $1.9 billion surplus, a $600 million tax cut still comes with a significant opportunity cost. The $600 million is money that Little and the Legislative Assembly could not use elsewhere. It helps explain criticism of the tax bill from both sides — from Democrats who say this latest income cut once again favors the wealthy, and from conservatives such as Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, who compared the bill to a “breadcrumb”.
Now, to be fair, $600 million buys a lot of bread crumbs, still subject to Idaho’s grocery sales tax. And even as lawmakers talked about other unpopular taxes — the grocery tax, property taxes — the House on Thursday passed the income tax cuts by 57 votes to 13. Burley’s Republican Rep. Fred Wood joined 12 Democrats in opposition.
We know how this storyline will resolve. This bill will almost certainly pass, returning $600 million to taxpayers and taking $600 million off the table — much to the delight of few around the Statehouse.
This is the kind of session we envision.
Little’s education budgets are full of big items.
- An additional $104 million to increase teacher salaries and $17.8 million for teacher bonuses.
- A plan to invest an additional $105 million a year in school employee health benefits.
- A $50 million household education grant program.
- A $47 million plan to fund and expand full-day kindergarten.
- A $22.3 million increase in the higher education budget – the largest single-year budget increase, in gross dollars, since at least 1984, and quite possibly the largest such increase in history of the state, said Alex Adams, head of Little’s financial management division.
The state can only spend this money once. And lawmakers won’t spend it to everyone’s taste.
When the House Education Committee went through Little’s budget proposal Wednesday morning, Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, asked Adams about lost opportunities. He asked why the K-12 budgets did nothing to finally tackle school facilities, funded by local property taxes. Adams said the K-12 budgets will ease pressure on local property taxes, increasing wages and benefits, and funding all-day kindergarten.
Berch conceded the point, but remained skeptical. “I was hoping there would be room to manage the bonds as well as the levies.”
Many of these education campaign elements could eventually pass. An all-day kindergarten bill could pass — even if it’s not comprehensive enough to satisfy Democrats, and even if it faces resistance from early education skeptics. A school employee benefits bill passed a House committee on Wednesday, despite opposition from the Conservatives. A top education budget should overcome objections from conservatives who want ideologically-driven spending cuts — and fail for Idahoans who want to shift more of the cost of college off the shoulders of students and parents.
A landmark year for education might go way too far for some legislators, and not far enough for others.
High, unmet expectations. It looks like the 2022 season of the Idaho Legislature, the mini-review. There will be twists and comedic moments, perhaps unintended and perhaps awkward. But we know where this series is going.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education policy. Look for his stories every Thursday.
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