(Note: This is the second of a three-part interview with Lt. Gov. Brad Little.)
Money was Topic A during much of the 2012 legislative session, but unlike the past three sessions of the Legislature, lawmakers were debating how to spend it, rather than where to cut it. The spending contenders included tax relief, more money for education, replenishing depleted reserve funds, taking care of infrastructure needs, Medicaid programs … you name it, someone wanted an extra slice of the spending pie.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little was happy that lawmakers provided some measure of tax relief. Idahoans who are in the higher tax bracket will have their rate lowered to 7.4 percent down from 7.8 percent, for example.
He was also a proponent of putting money into the state’s rainy day funds. “Those rainy day funds never do you any good in the long run because they’re not ongoing funds. But they allow you to plan for and make the adjustments you need without having to make them in a crisis situation,” said Little of legislators dedicating some money to boost the state’s emergency funds.
The lieutenant governor said that having those funds can curtail unwanted measures that some other states have had to take during tough times. “A lot of the other states, without rainy day funds when the (economic) slowdown happened, they had the choices of turning out prisoners, laying off all the state police, going to four-day-a-week school weeks or raising taxes. And, almost all of them raised taxes. Part of the reason we didn’t raise taxes is because we had that shock absorber that allowed us to do the right thing and to allow the agency managers to manage …”
At the beginning of the 2012 session, there was a lot of talk concerning ethics legislation pushed by the Democrats.
As it turned out, two different ethics issues came up in the Senate during the session. First, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, resigned due to sexual harassment accusations—after being allowed to keep his leadership position following a DUI and theft of an SUV plus the revelation he was accepting per diem money when he was not eligible to do so. The Idaho State Police are still investigating the McGee sexual harassment charge. Then, Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, was accused of not disclosing a potential conflict of interest dealing with the volatile oil/gas legislation. Pearce was cleared of the charges.
So, what does Little think of stronger ethics legislation?
He believes it’s always good to make sure the ethics laws are “appropriate for the times.” An attempt to improve those laws, at least in the Senate, happened on the last day of the session, but Little feels the timing could have been better. The new rules state that ethics complaints are to be confidential until a bipartisan ethics committee feels there is enough cause to move forward with a full investigation, which critics feel makes the process less transparent. “They could have done it a little earlier to where there was an opportunity to have a little better debate,” said Little.
Little does think that the rule change is a good one though, especially if a single complaint against someone comes during an election year. “The necessity to make the rule change to where a single accusation can’t be made by a single senator right prior to election, and cloud the integrity of that legislator without some due process, I think was the right thing to do.”
Little also believes while there should be accountability and transparency, voters will ultimately make the decision on whether to retain their representatives.
He also believes the media should hold elected officials accountable. “Some of the things that are talked about, I frankly think that the media should do. When I was in the Senate I was from Canyon County and the Press-Tribune always asked us, ‘Have you got outstanding judgments, are you paying your taxes.’ I think some of the burden on ethics should be in the hands of the media, that they should ask those questions.”
The 2012 session saw a lot of discussion about Idaho’s infrastructure regarding roads and bridges. State officials and lawmakers acknowledge that there is a problem that needs addressing, particularly with how maintenance and replacement will be funded.
In a recent IdahoReporter.com story, the House Transportation Committee chairman, Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, said the funding mechanism, which partially relies on the gas tax, is broken and that it needs a complete overhaul.
The issue took an even bigger stage when the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Idaho’s infrastructure, as it relates to roads and bridges, a very low grade.
Nearly two years ago, the governor’s transportation task force, headed by Little, identified hundreds of millions of dollars in needs, but the lieutenant governor told IdahoReporter.com in May 2011 that the state’s funding for education and other priorities necessitated the state putting off added infrastructure funding until times were better.
Now that the problem has gotten more attention, what now?
Little said he wasn’t surprised when the Legislature pushed back against the governor’s proposal for added road and bridge funding in 2009, because times were tough. To deal with some of the issues, Little said the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) was asked to streamline some of its processes and become more efficient.
“ITD has taken out about two layers of bureaucracy between the in-the-field worker and the top of the administration. For the administration to ask the Legislature and ask the taxpayers to increase fees, whether it be registration, whether it be fuel tax, whether it be any one of a variety of revenue sources, we need to be able to advocate to the people and to the Legislature that the Department of Transportation is as efficient as possible. We are getting there. Matter of fact, we’re making great strides in the efficiency of ITD.”
A big source of road and bridge funding in recent years has been GARVEE bonds. With the funds from GARVEE almost gone and lawmakers refusing to use the bonding capacity, Little said a huge factor in the state’s ability to address the road and bridge issues will be how much the federal government kicks in for the state. “I assume the federal funds are going to significantly diminish. That’s the wild card. What is the federal government going to do as far as the funding, because we send them a lot of revenue, fuel tax revenue. If the federal government revenue does not increase, and they in fact decrease it, we are really going to have to make some investments in roads and bridges.”
The lieutenant governor says the state needs to invest money to combat the issue soon, or face the consequences. “We are a user-pay state, and we should be a user-pay state. But, if we don’t invest the money soon, the opportunity for people to make a living and get to work is going to be significantly hampered by the fact that we’re going to have bridge closures because they’re not going to be safe,” he warns.
Coming Wednesday: In the final installment of the three-part interview, the lieutenant governor discusses the state of education in Idaho.