BOISE — The state’s agenda is full and lawmakers are engaged in the 66th regular session of the Idaho Legislature, which began Jan. 11. Speaking to their return, the session’s highlights and their own goals, Senator Carl Crabtree (R, Grangeville) and Rep. Priscilla Giddings (R, White Bird) spoke in interviews last week.
Out of the gate, the Republican leadership has set its number one priority as changing how emergencies are handled in Idaho. This is in response to Gov. Brad Little’s emergency declaration as relates to COVID-19. Giddings said this is one of a few pieces of legislation she wishes to pursue this year, continuing the effort pushed by the house in a resolution in special session last year, which she added the senate refused to take up.
“We’re lined up now to try to push again to end the emergency,” she said.
Crabtree said reducing the length of emergency declarations is one example of where the governor’s powers need to be put in check.
“We were prepared for the nuclear circumstances of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and these haven’t been revisited since,” Crabtree said, regarding governor authority, “and then we have the pandemic...and we weren’t set up for that.”
“We’re going to correct those mistakes,” he continued, “and have a more steady rein after this.... It was of interest in the special session, but we couldn’t do it. But we can now, and we will.”
Giddings elaborated an issue with ending the emergency is potentially losing some or all of federal funding as related to COVID, specifically $29 million from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), out of $8.1 billion in CARES monies received by Idaho. The debate is whether such action will end any, some or none of the $29 million, and at this point there is no clear answer.
“Of the $8.1 billion are we ready to end the emergency if we’re to potentially lose $29 million in FEMA projects? That’s something we’re juggling right now.”
“How do we get money back to Idahoans?” questioned Giddings, in a push this session regarding not just the state’s $614 million surplus, but as well, $180 million in the Wayfair Internet Sales Tax Relief Fund. She said the governor has suggested a $455 million tax relief package, “which is a good start, but nowhere near the total amount available.” A second concern is the relief fund go only toward its specified purpose.
“Conservative Republicans believe the tax relief go only to relieve taxes and not spent in other areas,” she said, “especially as we have such a huge surplus.” One option to get money back into Idahoans’ pockets is to eliminate the grocery tax, she said.
Despite continuing with COVID precautions in play, legislators see this session to be “business as usual,” according to Giddings, with added safety protocols now commonplace: more Zoom meetings, and eliminating as possible group gatherings. The push is to be as expeditious as possible in business, which, she added, is phraseology used every year when going into the legislature. It is expected to be a normal session with normal timelines, but the governor’s state of the state address was anything but, according to Crabtree.
“I’ve never seen it done that way,” he said, with Gov. Little conducting it remotely and the senate watching it from their chairs and not the supreme court’s room. “It’s kind of a moving day, normally,” he said, but this year it lacked the importance of the moment due to this detachment, and as well suffered from some audio and video disruptions.
However, the governor’s information was useful, Crabtree said, and hits several issues of importance for constituents.
“One of the highlights for us in District 7 is transportation,” he said, as all its production has go out on roads, which is a concern due to half the state’s bridges being past their life expectancies, and highway safety issues on U.S. Highway 95, for example. “We’re long behind in what to do about this,” he said. “We need to do some changes in transportation funding that shouldn’t have an effect on people’s pocketbooks, but will have a positive effect on the transportation corridor that is our lifeblood.”
Highlighted in the governor’s address was investing — a 60/40 split — in state and local highway infrastructure projects; create an ongoing source of funding to stimulate long-term investment offset by ongoing tax reductions; and making targeted investments in safe routes to schools, rail infrastructure and community airports.
“The state’s general economic health is extraordinarily good, so we’re fortunate,” Crabtree said, relating to the $600 million-plus state surplus, of which he sees good decision and careful budget projections helped play a part. Of this, the governor is suggesting the surplus go toward a rainy-day fund. “This is so when we get into a complete disaster and the state economy tanks that we don’t have to strangle services to people, that it’s either raise taxes or not serve them.”
Serving on the education committee, Crabtree noted approximately $50 million is proposed to help expand broadband services through Idaho, and more specifically, through its rural areas.
“My job is to see that this gets done and distributed fairly,” he said, which will help not just education, but also other services such as health.
Issues Giddings sees as needing some legislative push include improved donor identification transparency in campaign finance reporting, and on protections against mandated vaccines, which on this last she said Idaho currently doesn’t require.
“But, of course, there could be some federal requirement in the future and it could be tied to funding,” she said, “and we don’t know what that looks like. So, how do we strengthen laws so that basic human autonomy is upheld?”
This year marks the success of five years of requests, as Giddings was elected to serve on the JFAC (Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee).
“They always say, follow the money. The reasons for policy decisions and how the state runs is always tied to a piggy bank,” Giddings said. “I’ve always wanted to fully understand the entirety of the state’s functioning, and I felt the most effective way to do so is on JFAC.... We get the opportunity to hear from and ask questions of every executive agency that receives money, and I really like the opportunity to ask hard questions of our executive agencies.” Constituent assistance requests often involve these agencies — such as the department of labor or fish and game — and as just a legislator she has zero authority over these as they work for the governor.
“The only way a legislator can help constituents and impact those agencies is through the purse strings,” she said. “So, when I get questions from constituents, it’s nice to have that director stand in front of the committed and explain their role and follow up with those questions.”
This will be Crabtree’s fifth legislative session, and his gained experience has improved his service and effectiveness for constituents.
“When you’re first elected and come down here, you’re wild-eyed with the place. You don’t know who the players are and who is in a position to change things,” he said. “I think I have a better feel of that now than I had when I first walked in here,” using time and resources better, and finding the shortcuts to make progress.
“Knowing who can make those changes and what works better helps me serve District 7 constituents better during the off-season,” he said. “That’s probably the most important part of our work.”