BOISE -- Spring is in the air, and Idaho legislators are itching to wrap up and return home for the year. Their target date for the end of session has been March 20, which means bills are moving quickly at the capitol. Lawmakers are trying to push that adjournment date even earlier amid concerns over the spread of novel coronavirus.
Rapidly rising property tax burdens were the headline topic at the beginning of the January. Rather than tackling the tax system head-on, however, legislators have spent most of the session laying the groundwork for an interim committee to study the issue. That pressure has been most heavily felt in urban areas of the state that are experiencing rapid population growth and rising residential property values.
“It’s kind of a regional problem, but it’s a serious problem,” Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told reporters at an Idaho Press Club event. “For those of us in other areas that don’t feel it’s that big of a problem, to completely ignore the problems that you find—particularly here in the Treasure Valley—I think that would be irresponsible of us.”
Local units of government are able to increase their property tax budgets every year by three percent, plus value from new construction and land annexation. If they come in under that three percent cap under existing law, the state tax commission tracks the difference and reserves those foregone amounts. Taxing districts are then able to go back and collect these foregone increases from previous years, on top of the three percent and other factors.
Signed into law by Governor Brad Little, House Bill 354 will now require local governments to publicly designate a specific dollar amount to reserve in foregone property taxes, rather than the tax commission reserving all foregone increases by default.
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, early in the session proposed a one-year freeze to those local property tax budgets, which eventually passed the House.
Upon its arrival in the Senate, however, House Bill 409 was amended by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, from a one-year freeze into a three-year cap on budget increases. That bill failed in the Senate on an 11-24 vote after bipartisan opposition Thursday.
In the Senate committee hearing, Moyle had indicated his opposition to amending the proposal. Rather than a budget freeze, the amended bill would have imposed a four-percent limit on increases, with factors like new construction included rather than being counted on top. Whether as a freeze or a stricter growth limit, the bill was intended to give the Legislature time to work on a comprehensive property tax review.
“We would be changing from what HB 409 would do to a new system with adjustments,” Rice told the whole Senate. “This is a complicated issue and could take more than one year.”
Following the demise of HB 409, the Senate State Affairs Committee introduced two new property tax bills Friday morning. One makes adjustments to the circuit breaker program for low-income seniors. The other raises the homeowner’s exemption to $120,000 and restores the index that was removed in 2016.
“I am disappointed that Republicans have waited until the 11th hour,” Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, said in a press release. “there’s a good chance that neither of these pieces of legislation will ever be signed into law because they have waited until a week before the end of the legislative session to finally start having the conversation.”
Democrats have been clamoring for those proposals all session, though Moyle insists that tax-related bills must start in the House and not the Senate.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has nearly completed the state budget for fiscal year 2021. Like any bill, state agency appropriations must be approved by both the House and the Senate before becoming law with the governor’s signature.
The House has rejected several budget proposals in the last several weeks, including those for the state treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, and public colleges and universities. The Legislature cannot adjourn without a balanced budget, which means JFAC must draft new budgets to replace those that have been rejected.
They met Thursday to introduce those replacement budgets, as well as several “trailer” bills to fund proposals that have passed into law this session. The existing JFAC Medicaid budget has an $8.5 million-dollar hole that the governor recommended be collected from county savings after Medicaid expansion last year. However, a bill to wind down the catastrophic healthcare program and county indigency programs and collect those funds from the counties’ share of sales tax revenue was voted down in committee Friday, leaving that budget in question.
JFAC also directed $2 million to the governor’s emergency fund for coronavirus response last week, which was approved unanimously by both the Senate and the House. While there are still no confirmed cases in Idaho as of midday Friday, the governor signed an emergency declaration that opens access to additional emergency funds and medical supplies like masks and respirators.
“The concern, of course, is the wellbeing of our vulnerable population – the elderly with chronic underlying health conditions and others with compromised immune systems,” Little said. “We need to slow down the spread of coronavirus so healthcare facilities are not overwhelmed with too many patients at once.”
The state expects to receive an additional $4.5 million in federal funds from an $8.5 billion coronavirus preparedness and response package passed by Congress earlier this month.
A constitutional amendment brought by House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to fix the number of legislative districts at 35 has passed both chambers, making its way to voters on the November 2020 ballot. The constitution allows a range of 30-35 districts—the current map is set at 35—and lawmakers are concerned that the redistricting commission’s mandate to keep communities of interest intact could lead to fewer districts after the 2020 census.
Several bills relating to daylight saving time have sprung forward this session. A proposal to opt the state out of the change entirely failed to get momentum in the House, while switching to year-round daylight saving requires approval from Congress.
Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, brought forward Senate Bill 1267 to switch the Pacific Time Zone region of the state—north of Riggins—to permanent Daylight Saving time if the neighboring state of Washington also gets approval. That bill has been approved by both chambers and is headed to the governor’s desk.
Later in the session, Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, brought Senate Bill 1386 to switch the Mountain Time Zone area of the state as well, if Utah also gets permission to do so. That bill was sent to the full Senate on Friday, though with the rapidly approaching adjournment date it is unclear if the Mountain Time bill will make it over the finish line. Patrick has pointed to several neighboring states that have also passed legislation requesting permanent DST, saying that a large block of states is more likely to get attention and action from Congress.
A bill authorizing the legal farming and transportation of industrial hemp—not marijuana—died in a House committee, leaving Idaho and Mississippi as the only states without legal hemp agriculture in place.