BOISE -- Property taxes, criminal justice reform and education funding were on the minds of both Republican and Democratic leadership following Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address Monday, Jan. 6.
House Speaker Rep. Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) delivered the House Majority Caucus’s response to the speech, noting the overall tone among House Republicans was “positive and upbeat” after hearing Little’s budget plans for the upcoming legislative session. Bedke remarked that it has been since 2014 that the legislature has seen a governor propose a budget limiting spending growth as low as 3.75 percent “without any gimmicks.”
The majority generally agreed with Little’s proposed approaches to improving K-12 literacy and the quality of public education statewide, Bedke said. He reaffirmed the caucus’s commitment to improving teacher salaries statewide, an ongoing process prioritized by Little in his budget address.
“No one can criticize the need for increased investment in [literacy and education] in the state of Idaho,” Bedke said.
Bedke said he felt confident in plans to address Medicare expansion, saying Idaho is on track to meeting its expected contribution of $41 million.
However, the governor’s address was “light” on one issue Bedke said he felt Idahoans were concerned about -- rising property taxes in counties and cities across the state.
“There is a lot of finger-pointing right now on whose fault these rises are,” Bedke said. “We know these current increases are unsustainable, but we don’t know what solutions look like yet.”
Bedke clarified there are no property tax bills drafted at this point, but said he recognizes homeowner concerns and expects some form of relief to be a point of debate this session.
“The governor left some policy ideas in the House’s lap,” Bedke said. “The first priority is going to be one of the less headline-grabbing ideas as we have to iron out differences between the House and Senate.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) stressed her party’s desire to reverse the “disastrous trend” of tax breaks on the wealthy in her response to Little’s speech.
Rubel said efforts to reduce taxes and cut spending are “starving” counties and cities of necessary funding for areas like education, infrastructure, criminal reform and other essential public services.
“We are driving them to desperation,” Rubel said.
Rubel blamed recent property tax spikes on this trend, saying supplemental bonds and levies to increase education funding at city and county levels result in higher tax rates to make up the difference.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Michelle Stennett (D- Ketchum) said she was "frankly surprised and pleased” to see Gov. Little’s proposed $100 million transportation plan. With the pressure of new growth throughout the state, she said she hopes the legislature can recognize the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure statewide. Idaho’s population has increased nearly two percent in the past year according to Rubel, making proposed spending cuts more strenuous on existing resources.
Rubel emphasized her party’s commitment to reducing prison spending by reducing incarceration rates overall. The minority hopes to focus resources on programs preventing Idahoans from entering the criminal justice system in the first place, a step also emphasized by Little.
Rubel said that while she hopes there will eventually be less demand for prison capacity, those who are incarcerated should stay in Idaho rather than being sent to out-of-state prisons. Little’s planned budget includes an increase of 651 out-of-state prison beds.
“When you move people away from their families when incarcerated, they are more likely to be recommitted,” Rubel said.