Lawmakers used the word “frustrating” this week to describe the 2017 legislative session.

“I felt like we were dealing with personal issues rather than legislative issues,” said Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa.

Vander Woude and four other legislators spoke on a panel at the Meridian Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday.

“This was by far the most frustrating session that I've been in,” said Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, who has served in the Legislature for 11 years.

The lawmakers didn't specify which personal issues they were referring to, but if you followed the news this session, I'm sure some examples come to mind.

The three major legislative issues discussed at the luncheon were education funding, transportation and tax cuts.

EDUCATION

Lawmakers passed a roughly $1.7 billion public education budget this session, an increase of 6.3 percent, the Associated Press reports.

Rep. Thomas Dayley, R-Boise, said the state has “treated education fairly” during his five years at the Statehouse.

“A better question that I like to ask the education community is not, 'How much money do you need?' but 'How are you spending the money we have given you already?'” he said.

Lawmakers should ask that of any governmental agency before increasing its funding, he added.

“Because that's the way every single one of you in your businesses do (it),” Dayley said. “You don't simply give money and then don't ask the question, 'How did you spend that money, and has that money been spent effectively and efficiently?'”

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, agreed.

“It's not just about funding, it's about the product that we're getting, and are our kids getting what they need,” she said. “And I would argue that in some cases they really are, and in other cases they aren't.”

The K-12 budget plan includes $62 million for teacher pay increases, part of a five-year plan to boost salaries in an effort to retain and attract teachers, according to the AP.

“We all recognize that we needed to increase our base salary for our new teachers,” Den Hartog said.

TRANSPORTATION

Legislators passed a $320 million transportation funding bill this session. Of that, $300 million will come in the form of federal GARVEE bonds for projects determined by the Idaho Transportation Department. At the top of the priority list is improving Interstate 84 in Nampa, Vander Woude said.

Half of the $300 million in the transportation funding law will go toward I-84 in Nampa, he said, but the other half hasn't been allocated yet.

Mark Freeman, who moderated Tuesday's discussion and serves as co-chairman of the Meridian Chamber's Government Affairs committee, asked if Chinden Boulevard (Highway 20/26) will benefit from this transportation bill. The corridor isn't scheduled to be widened until 2021, when two more lanes will be added from Locust Grove Road to Eagle Road.

“Basically at this point, Chinden isn't that high on the list for ITD, and that's where it has to be,” Vander Woude said. "The key is to try to move Chinden up the list."

That's the goal of the Meridian's Highway 20/26 task force, created by Mayor Tammy de Weerd. Earlier this year, ITD released an environmental assessment on the highway and held public hearings.

The $320 funding bill also created a transportation expansion and congestion mitigation fund, using about $20 million a year from sales tax and cigarette tax revenue.

Dayley said he's been pushing for Idaho to start using general fund dollars to maintain and build roads, which the state typically funds with user fees and gas tax.

“In Idaho we have a lot more miles per capita than a lot of other states do to build and to maintain,” Dayley said. “We need to focus on the funding.”

TAX POLICY

The Senate voted against a $28 million tax relief plan that would have reduced personal and corporate income tax rates, according to the AP.

Instead, the Senate passed a repeal on grocery sales tax, which was also backed by the House but vetoed by Gov. Butch Otter after the session ended.

Den Hartog said the Senate prioritized removing the grocery tax over cutting tax rates because that would be a greater benefit to low-income earners and people on fixed incomes. These are the people who got hit the hardest two years ago, she said, when the state increased the gas tax and registration fees to fund transportation projects.

“We didn't agree that taxing our most basic necessity — food — was a good policy to have in the state,” Den Hartog said.

Many lawmakers who want to repeal the grocery sales tax also want to eventually cut corporate and personal income tax rates, she added.

“We need to do both,” Den Hartog said, “and I think we'll come back and do able to do both.”

Repealing the grocery tax would result in a loss of state revenue of $80 million in fiscal year 2019, according to Otter. In his veto letter, he said that would make it "more difficult to meet our commitments to improving Idaho's education system."

Otter said he supports tax relief, but repealing the grocery tax would be too disruptive to the state budget while providing a small amount of tax relief to residents. Utah repealed its grocery tax, and now the state's legislative leaders advise against it, Otter wrote. Because everyone eats, he argued, the grocery tax provides the state with a stable source of income even when other revenues fluctuate. 

WEIGH IN

How do you think lawmakers and Gov. Otter handled issues this session? What were you glad to see pass, and what do you wish would have gone differently? Email your letter to the editor to news@mymeridianpress.com.

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