Legislature returns and we pretty much know how this movie will end
Sorry to give the ending, but Governor Brad Little will probably get what he wants.
On Thursday, or possibly Friday, lawmakers will likely pass Little’s ambitious special session bill. Barring the unexpected, they will pump an additional $410 million a year into education, greenlight $500 million in one-time tax refunds, and cut income taxes by more than $150 million a year.
Then they will go home. Roll the credits.
We pretty much know how this movie will end because this movie is a remake.
Almost 16 years to the day after the government of the time. Jim Risch brought lawmakers back to Boise for a one-day special session focused on school funding, Little scripted his own special session. And once again, the financing of education will be at the heart of the debate.
Little does not borrow a small amount here.
He can deny it, but his plan to increase K-12 spending by $330 million per year undoubtedly resembles Reclaim Idaho’s campaign initiative, which would inject an identical amount of increases in school income tax. And his special session follows Risch’s formula almost to the letter.
Trust me, all of you. I was there for the special one-day session of 2006, and I will be back on Thursday. I probably won’t be able to get to the Statehouse in a time-traveling DeLorean, but you can’t always get what you want.
And even if you don’t want to take my word for it, take it from another longtime observer of Idaho politics. In an op-ed last week – titled “Calling Yogi Berra: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again” – the Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase went through several items on the Risch/Little checklist.
- Write a sweeping bill.
- Line up the votes in advance.
- Entertain no alternatives.
- Blur it all when lawmakers and ordinary Idahoans are just trying to squeeze out the last drops of lemonade from summer.
- Get ahead of a citizens’ initiative on school funding.
- Run on the finished product in November.
Few have seen this movie before too. After all, he was there in 2006. As a state senator, he voted for the Risch bill.
Like Risch before him, Little knows that the rules of a special session heavily favor the governor. Only the governor can recall lawmakers in session (although lawmakers hope to change that, with a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot). And the governor decides the agenda.
That means a governor only calls a special session when he has a specific bill in hand — and the votes to pass it.
Little does this a little differently than Risch. The 2006 bill passed with almost exclusively Republican support, as Risch effectively struck out the Democrats. This time, Little has assembled a quirky bipartisan coalition — including conservative Republicans such as Reps. Sage Dixon of Ponderay, Brent Crane of Nampa and Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls, and Democrats such as Rep. Ilana Rubel of Boise and Sen. Janie Ward. -Engelking of Boise. Essentially, Little is writing off his own party’s hardline faction, the far-right adherents who align most closely with the Idaho Freedom Foundation. A clever calculation, on Little’s part.
And ultimately it’s about lining up the votes, and Little seems to have done his legwork. He has 37 House co-sponsors, just enough to push his bill through the 70-member chamber. He has a lot more leeway in the Senate, where 25 of the 35 senators are on board. He also has comfortable majorities in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee.
There will be theatrics and procedural rumblings – making a day-long session on Thursday, or a recap on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. But the result looks like a fait accompli.
Do not worry. You will have the opportunity to express yourself afterwards. Little’s bill would also place an advisory question on the Nov. 8 ballot. Here it is, verbatim:
“Do you approve or disagree that the State of Idaho is using the record budget surplus to refund $500 million to hard-working Idaho taxpayers, cut ongoing income taxes by more than $150 million and put more money in our classrooms by increasing education and student funding by a record $410 million?
“Your endorsement of this effort would fight historic inflation by returning money to taxpayers, creating a simple flat tax, and making the biggest investment in public education in Idaho history.”
Little does not ask voters if this is a Big Special Session or the Biggest Special Session. But he can as well.
Again, this comes straight from the Risch script. He placed a similarly charged question on the November 2006 ballot — and still likes to brag that it passed in every precinct in Idaho.
And Little’s plan mirrors Risch’s plan in a very substantial way: it relies heavily on sales tax.
The new $410 million for education would come directly from sales tax. The bill contains a 3% annual multiplier, so it is banking on continued growth in sales tax collections. Supporters of Little’s bill argue that sales tax is a stable source of funding — and after falling for two years during the Great Recession, sales tax collections have been rising ever since.
In 2006, Risch was so confident in the sales tax that he even raised it. His tax overhaul reduced school property tax collection by $260 million; increasing the sales tax rate from 5% to 6%, it provided $210 million in new sales taxes to cover most of the property tax reduction.
Many educators — and some legislative Republicans — have warned against moving from an unpopular but stable property tax to the sales tax. And of course, the Great Recession led to lower sales tax collections. Meanwhile, the Risch tax change coincided with a proliferation of additional voter-approved property tax levies. The net result, as we reported in 2016, was not the promised tax cut, but actually a tax increase.
With a critical mass of legislative co-sponsors — and support from education lobbyists and the Idaho Trade and Industry Association — Little’s bill looks greased to go. This reboot seems destined to go according to script. But it will take years to see if tax changes and investments in education actually work as intended.
Coming Thursday: Check back for full coverage of the special session.
Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education politics and education policy. Look for his stories every Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s analysis was released on Monday, August 29.
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