By Russ Fulcher | Idaho Freedom Foundation
If publicly asked the question “Do you agree more with the tax-and-spend philosophy of Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama,” I would predict that every member of Idaho’s super-majority Republican legislative caucus would respond with Reagan.
However, the results of the 2015 legislative session will be difficult for most lawmakers to explain during the next campaign season. There was a lot of spending and lot of tax increases.
In 2015, the Reagan philosophy was out and the Obama philosophy prevailed in Idaho.
But over the course of the three and a half-month session, not everything was bad. There were some good things, some bad things, and yes… some ugly things. Below is a summary from your conservatively biased author:
Despite heavy pressure from some special interest groups that stood to gain a lot of money by expanding a broken, federally debt-laden Medicaid system, our lawmakers used good judgement. They took a stand for local control and the free market by refusing to expand Medicaid. Legislators also refused to play an economic shell-game by raising the minimum wage.
Uber, the free-market ride-sharing company, was allowed to operate without additional government intervention.
Increases in spending for the education and transportation budgets alone total nearly $300 million per year. To pay for it, lawmakers are assuming tax revenue will increase over the next year by the current rate of about $200 million. Though the current trend is pointing that direction, the assumption that it will continue may not be safe and here’s why: The same taxpayers charged with coming up with the $200 million in growth money now have to do it while carrying some new tax burdens.
Specifically, they will need to come up with another $63 million for gas (increase of 7 cents per gallon) and an incremental $28 million for vehicle registrations ($21 per vehicle registration for most vehicles).
Tax relief didn’t happen. The House passed a bill that would have eliminated grocery taxes at the till and reduced and simplified the income tax code – both good things. But that bill was killed by the Senate.
A bill to eliminate the mandatory SBAC test -- central to the Common Core education program -- never got a public hearing. That was surprising, considering the statewide support for addressing this issue.
And then there was the creation of new mandatory licensing for sign language interpreters and genetic counselors. Unfortunately, that will make it more expensive and difficult for folks in those professions to get a job and earn money.
Early in the session the legalized -- and now paralyzed -- Idaho Education Network (IEN) got some attention. The courts had pronounced the award to IEN’s primary provider was illegal. That means that the Legislature couldn’t appropriate funds for an illegal budget line item. In turn, the provider that was wrongfully granted the award said they would stop IEN services. Sounds complicated and bad, right? Well, maybe not. During the whole process, the recipients of IEN services -- local school districts -- took matters into their own hands and came up with regional solutions for less money. Although in this case it was unplanned, the free-market still works if we will let it.
In the last week of the session the governor vetoed a bill having to do with gaming machines for horse racing. The ugly part was that he transmitted the vetoed bill back to the Senate sevens days after receiving it, when it is common knowledge that a vetoed bill must be transmitted within 5 days. But the situation grew even weirder. Although the Senate knew of the transmittal error, they voted on the bill anyway. The result: The veto stands, unless and until someone challenges it in court.
Then on the last day of a marathon session, on a Friday afternoon when everyone’s patience was at a minimum, the Legislature decided to debate a transportation funding bill that included $94 million in tax increases. Around 1:00 the next morning, the bill passed.
Also on the last day of the session, what was previously thought to be routine legislation regarding the enforcement of child support orders abroad, ran into trouble. After clearing the Senate unanimously, someone on the House side figured out there was some new federal language on pages 27, 28 and 31 of the bill.
That language stated Americans may need to abide by foreign laws before they could receive their American taxpayer-funded, American government check. The bill died - probably the appropriate result given the circumstances. But since the feds are holding a $46 million subsidy hammer over Idahoans with this bill, expect a special legislative session – and hopefully a re-write.
That’s just another example of why Idaho needs to reduce dependency on the federal government.
All in all, 2015 will be remembered as a memorable legislative year. But it’s prevailing legacy is one of government growth, taxation and spending.
It is difficult to be a legislator, and it is difficult to say no when so many people ask for so many things. But my experience has taught me that most of the time, any short-term gratification of saying yes to more government will soon reveal its’ long-term effect: slowed economic growth and reduced personal liberty. Most legislation either elevates government control, or it elevates the control of the free-market.
Unfortunately, this year, legislation supporting more government control won.
Russ Fulcher is a former state senator. He ran for governor in 2014 and now works as a successful commercial real estate agent. He is a member of the Idaho Freedom Foundation's oversight board.