In 2015, the Idaho Legislature fled Boise after approving a $95 million tax hike in the dead of night. The 2016 Legislature came close to that level of gravitas, going on a spending spree and blowing kisses at Obamacare as they exited the building. This is a Legislature that failed. Hard.
Fortunately, it was not a total disaster. The triumphs of this session include the long-awaited passage of permitless concealed carry; stopping local governments from imposing their own wage mandates on businesses and employees; providing counties with new tools to mitigate fire hazards on public lands; allowing terminally-ill patients the right to try new medications; and reforming urban renewal.
However, when measured against the relentless special-interest Big Government agenda, including the continued infatuation with and support for Obamacare, there is no question the negatives cast a wide and dark shadow over any accomplishments.
While other states are fixing their public schools by expanding education choice, our Legislature continued to cling to the notion that more money makes everything better. The Legislature poured a 7.4 percent increase in education spending into the public school system without any expectation that our schools will operate better, or that our kids will graduate better prepared for colleges or careers. (For his part, Gov. Butch Otter lamented that the Legislature’s binge spending was too little).
As imprudent as this might sound, the Legislature increased general fund spending by about 8 percent, on an expected 2016-2017 revenue increase of about 4.9 percent. (Anecdotally, Idaho Public Television scored a 30 percent increase in taxpayer support.) With almost $250 million in new revenue, lawmakers couldn’t spare a dollar to give back to Idaho residents, but they did find the money to give state employees a 3 percent pay hike and to cover increases in their benefits costs.
The House gingerly lobbed a measly 0.1 percent reduction in income taxes over to the Senate, which the Senate quickly discarded. And though the Senate deserves blame for not advancing tax relief, the House also deserves arrows for quietly refusing to give a moment’s consideration to a popular proposal to get rid of the state’s sales tax on groceries and its goofy companion grocery-tax credit.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Legislature failed to do anything meaningful on health care. THough lawmakers adamantly rejected Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed entitlement health care program, the House came up with its own plan to make poor people wards of the state and passed that onto the Senate. The Senate, in turn, called and raised that hand by voting to implement yet another phase of Obamacare — Medicaid expansion.
Lawmakers were steadfastly unwilling to consider market-based solutions. Such solutions included ideas to connect poor people with community organizations, which would actually help lift them out of poverty. Nor were legislators willing to remove barriers to purchasing health insurance across state lines, or to make medical care more accessible and therefore less expensive.
All of these actions would make perfect sense in, say, Connecticut. Or Vermont. Or California. But this is Idaho. Lawmakers will undoubtedly now go home, campaign for re-election and make disingenuous claims that they worked really, really hard to implement conservative principles, fight back against Big Government and control spending. Don’t believe it for a second.