2017 Legislature Summary
Course Change Needed
by Rep. Ronald Nate – District 34
Idaho Legislative sessions are usually judged by how well the legislature addresses the most prominent problems facing the state. The 2017 session was no different. The main questions this year were about meeting our growing transportation repair and infrastructure needs and restoring education funding to competitive levels with other states. Transportation got $320 million more funding and education was increased by 6.3% (after a 15% increase over the last two years). Check, and check.
I came into the 2017 session thinking there were three other issues—big picture issues—more important for the legislature to address. Could Idaho return to being fiscally conservative? Could the Republican-dominated legislature return to Republican platform principles? Could Idaho return to a citizen-focused, bottom up approach to governance instead of the top down, establishment politics we’ve seen in Boise?
It’s easy to be fiscally conservative when budgets are tight, but the true test of conservatism comes when revenues are plentiful. Do we “spend it up,” or do we return the excess to its rightful owners—the taxpayers? When the session began, the Legislative Services Office was projecting $140 million in revenues above projections for the 2017 fiscal year. With all that extra money floating around the capitol, the session became a test of whether Idaho’s legislature was truly conservative or whether they just talked the talk.
Unfortunately, fiscal conservatism was lost on most legislators. This year, every appropriation bill was approved as is. Spending was increased by 5.4% over the 2017 FY original amounts, or nearly an 8% increase over last year (taking out last year’s one-time spending items). Even worse, after the money was spent up, the only way to address transportation needs was to BORROW another $300 million from the federal government (in GARVEE bonds, see S1206). This was a “spend it up” legislature.
I kept track of spending items added to this year’s appropriation bills. There were many add-ons I’m sure we would not have approved had revenues been scarce. On the House floor I gave a running tally from my “overspending tracker.” It was surprising to see how the overspending grew and grew. By the time the last appropriation passed, I had found 71 bills with extra spending totaling $101,015,610. This is a low-end estimate; only the extra items I was able to spot.
After all this spending, the only tax reduction the legislature could muster was a bill (H67a) to eliminate sales taxes on groceries while repealing the grocery tax credit on income taxes ($79.3 million in net tax reduction). Because we had already spent up the 2017 surplus, and borrowed $300 million more, the grocery tax cut could only be afforded beginning in June of 2018.
Idaho may talk about being fiscally conservative, but the 2017 has to be marked as failing the test on all levels. We had a surplus, spent it up, borrowed twice as much more, and then only offered one (grocery) tax cut coming more than a year later—when we can “afford” it. To top it all off, the Governor is threatening to veto the grocery tax cut. Idaho has a long way to go to return to fiscal conservatism!
The Idaho legislature is dominated by Republicans. In the House, 59 of 70 representatives are Republican and in the Senate, 29 of 35 are Republican. So, we should expect Republican values to dominate the discussion and the legislative agenda.
The Idaho Republican Platform is very clear about promoting the principles of less government, lower taxes, more freedom, more transparency, personal responsibility, and Idaho sovereignty. As Idaho Republicans, we recognize all government is financed by taxing its citizens and as such, we believe the size and cost of government must be reduced. We, as Republicans, believe the unnecessary growth of government has a negative impact on both the conduct of business and our individual lives.
Unfortunately, the Idaho legislature had no inkling to reduce the size nor cost of government. The massive spending increases this session do nothing more than grow government (HCR29 added a huge building complex) and increase the budgets of existing bureaucracies—all by emptying the wallets of hard working tax payers. We added regulations and fees to many businesses too (dietitians, veterinarians, sign language interpreters, etc.). We became more dependent on federal money (and the strings attached); our budget in Idaho consists of 35% federal dollars.
It is up to elected representatives and senators, to protect citizens’ and taxpayers’ interests. The voices of the special interests are heard loud and clear in committee hearings. But, the legislature needs to remember the tens of thousands of voices of the taxpayers in the districts who can’t afford to lobby in the capitol (and who are excluded from JFAC input). The “forgotten man” (taxpayers) was largely ignored this session.
There were only a few flashes of Republican brilliance this session. We killed bills that would have required state collection of immunization records (H91), infringed on parents’ religious freedoms (S1182), and expanded socialized medicine (S1142a). We passed bills to expand freedoms for cosmetologists (H139), homeowners (H24, H216 and H137), and dog racers (H104). We undid the 2015 mistake of raising registration fees on hybrids (H20). We protected innocent citizens from unfair civil asset forfeitures (H202). The legislature approved a rule removing the SBAC (common core) test as a graduation requirement.
Republicans also missed some important opportunities. Bills to protect gun owners’ rights (castle doctrine, concealed carry for all citizens, and gun safety classes in schools) never made it into or out of committee. Protections for parents’ immunization freedom of choice (S1060), repealing Obamacare in Idaho (no number), and removing taxes on sound money holdings (H206) were all held by committee chairs or killed in session.
With a Republican-dominated legislature, we should tax less and spend less. We should take less from the federal government. We should regulate less. We should be conservative. We should be Republicans and honor our platform. The citizen taxpayer, the forgotten man, depends on our fiscal responsibility. We have more work to do as Republicans. Please see our GrowingFreedomIdaho.com website for more information about promoting Republican, freedom policies in Idaho.
The Idaho political scene similar to the national scene. For too long, the Idaho legislature has been characterized by special interests, cronyism, and establishment, power-driven, top-down politics. Idaho citizens are tired of politics as usual. Top down government doesn’t work for the people, and the process needs to change.
There are two critical problems in Idaho’s legislative process:
First, committee chairs (often at the bidding of leadership) control whether bills advance or are stopped. The committee chairs exercise veto power not specified in the Constitution nor in the legislative rules. The “power of the chair” has evolved over time to the point of excluding citizen input and representation from the committee members and therefore consolidating power in leadership and chairmanships.
Second, in the scramble to meet false deadlines, legislative rules of procedure are circumvented and violated in the final days of the session—resulting in bad and un-vetted legislation. Back room deals and negotiations lead to important bills being brought hastily to the floor with little or no public input, sometimes without hearings, and with hardly any time for the legislators to read and research what the bills do.
In 2015, the big transportation bill (H312a) added 7 cents to gasoline taxes and dramatically raised registration fees on cars, especially hybrids. The bill came to the House floor at 1 am on the last day of the session after a conference committee deal the preceding afternoon. The bill passed at 1:19 am, right before adjournment.
This 2017 session, a 42-page Oil and Gas bill (H301a) was amended and brought to the House floor without public input only minutes before being voted on at 6:30 in the evening. On the night before adjournment, the important ramshackle transportation bill came up for a vote at 5:40pm, after a last-minute committee hearing was held announcing the opportunity for public input only 90 minutes prior. This all should have been fully contemplated weeks before, but there we were scrambling at the last minute. Does this sound like good legislating to you?
Allowing the establishment to change or suspend normal legislative rules in order to cram important bills through the system at the last minute is unacceptable and not transparent. The rules of normal legislative procedure are designed to ensure transparency and fairness, but when the establishment in leadership gets in a hurry, those principles are compromised.
A growing group of legislators in the House, including myself, worked hard to get leadership to understand the problems with the current legislative process. We worked with leaders and chairs to see if we could get the changes we needed. Seeing little progress, we decided to work within the parliamentary and legislative rules to free up stalled legislation and to slow the hectic process inevitably arising in the last days of the session.
We invoked House Rule #45 to call a stalled bill (HR1) out of committee. After a revealing debate on the issue, the establishment locked the process down and the call of the bill was defeated easily. Though losing the motion, the move began the conversation about allowing more of the citizens’ bills to be heard. We won commitments from leadership about granting hearings for all bill ideas in the 2018 session.
Also, in the last week of the session, as important and complex bills were being hurried through the system with little or no review, our group of concerned legislators used objections in order to require bills to be fully read for the third reading on the House floor (as stipulated by the Idaho Constitution). This definitely slowed the process and allowed us a few extra days to vet and research some of the most important bills of the session.
We will continue to use proper rules of legislative procedure to ensure the voice of the people gets fully heard. Bills should not be held in committee chairs’ drawers and important bills should not be rushed through at the last minute. In this respect, we had a successful end to the 2017 Legislative Session—the message is definitely getting through. We will work for more progress for citizens to be heard in the 2018 session.
Growing Freedom – Get Involved!
Please visit the Growing Freedom Idaho website. It was created to help all citizens be more involved with what is going on in the Idaho Legislature and how to effectively make their voices heard. The site includes a Freedom Agenda of legislation brought to the legislature by citizens and is what liberty-minded legislators are pursuing for Idaho.