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Five issues to watch during the upcoming 2022 Idaho legislative session

Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

All-day kindergarten, COVID mandates and tax proposals may all be up for discussion

Legislators return to the Idaho State Capitol in Boise on Monday to begin the 2022 legislative session.

The action kicks off with Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address, which serves as a sort of starting point for the political and policy debates that will play out under the Statehouse rotunda.

Each Idaho legislative session is unpredictable, and 2022 will be no exception.

Even with the uncertainty and chaos that plays a part of each legislative session, several issues are expected to start conversations and generate debate.

Here are five to watch for:

Legislators expect a proposal to launch all-day kindergarten in Idaho

One of the biggest new policy proposals is expected to involve some form of state-funded, optional all-kindergarten. Currently, the state only provides funding for half-day kindergarten.

Gov. Brad Little’s education task force recommended expanding kindergarten in 2019, and in 2021, the State Board of Education endorsed all-day kindergarten, Idaho Education News reported.

Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, thinks this could be the year the Legislature finally moves on all-day kindergarten. Woodward pointed out that most Idaho school districts already offer all-day kindergarten.

“With that type of consensus, it’s time to fund the program at the state level while remembering it is optional and a choice for parents,” Woodward said.

Woodward sits on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the Senate Education Committee, two committees that could handle the heavy lifting on a new kindergarten bill.

“We know the importance of education to our state founders,” Woodward said. “It is clearly visible in the Idaho Constitution. The Legislature is duty-bound to ‘establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.’”

Legislators aligned with groups such as the Idaho Freedom Foundation are likely to continue to push for education budget cuts in public schools in higher education. But some legislators are discussing how providing state funding for all-day kindergarten could reduce the pressure on local school budgets and, in turn, local taxpayers that pay for supplemental levies at the school district level.

Unfinished business from 2021 and debates over COVID-19 mandates likely to resurface

When the Idaho Legislature reconvened for three days in November, legislators introduced 36 new bills — most attempting to push back against COVID-19 requirements from President Joe Biden and from businesses — but did not pass any new laws.

“I think we pick up right where we left off in November with conversations around mandates, the proper role of government, even the proper role of businesses, in that conversation,” Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said in a telephone interview in December.

Jaclyn Kettler, associate professor of political science at Boise State University, also expects vaccine and testing mandates to be part of the debate, even though several of the Biden administration’s mandates are facing court challenges already.

“Because we didn’t see much accomplished in (November), I definitely see some of those bills coming up again in 2022,” Kettler said. “They’re working through the court cases on the federal mandates, but there is still a lot of concern among legislators, so I expect we’ll see some of those proposals receive some big attention when the new session begins.”

Redistricting and the 2022 election are political wildcards that could add to the drama

The state’s redistricting process and the 2022 election for statewide offices might be some of the biggest wildcards of 2022.

All 105 seats in the Legislature and all of the major statewide offices, such as governor, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general, secretary of state and controller are up for election in 2022.

On top of that, there are new political districts. In 2021, Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission used 2020 census data to redraw Idaho’s 35 legislative districts and two congressional districts.

Those new maps have already created chaos by reconfiguring multiple legislative districts so that incumbents who previously represented different districts were lumped into the same new district together. That forces legislators to decide whether to run against a one-time ally, seek a different office or step aside.

Things got even more complicated on the redistricting front in November and December after Ada County commissioners, a political candidate, voters and two Native American tribes launched a total of five legal challenges against the redistricting plans with the Idaho Supreme Court. The Idaho Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on Jan. 14. But if the court throws out that redistricting plan, that could delay the scheduled May 17 primary elections if the state’s political boundaries are not completely finalized and free of challenges by the time the official candidate filing declaration window opens Feb. 28.

Despite the legal challenges and some anxiety among legislators grouped into crowded new districts, not everyone wants the maps thrown out.

“It’s certainly a map that nobody was especially happy with, which I guess is a sign the system worked well,” House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said. “They worked very hard. Our redistricting commissioners were fantastic and took their jobs incredibly seriously. They listened to many people all over the state, they conducted hearings, they studied the law. I have tremendous faith in the redistricting commission. They did the best job they could with the numbers they had and the information they had.”

Idaho’s 2022 election could bring changes to Legislature, state offices

Even if redistricting challenges don’t throw a wrench in the system, the elections are poised to change the makeup of state government. Several legislators, including Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, are running for higher statewide office in 2022. Reps. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and Dorothy Moon, R-Challis, are on that list, as is Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene.

To run for statewide office, legislators won’t be able to run for their legislative seat and will be out of the Legislature in 2023.

Kettler, the Boise State University professor, said it’s a little too early to know how much turnover could be possible after the 2022 election. But once the redistricting maps are finalized and the filing period opens, Idahoans will start to get a better idea.

“There is a possibility there is a fair amount (of) turnover in the Senate after elections, and even in the House, where you have some districts with multiple incumbents likely to run against each other,” Kettler said in a December telephone interview.

Legislators expect property tax proposals and debates.

Rubel said she believes “there is some room to do really good work on property tax relief” during the 2022 session.

One idea, Rubel said, is to treat the sales tax collected on internet purchases the same as the sales tax collected on sales at local brick-and-mortar shops. Now, the money goes into a special tax relief fund. Rubel wants to send an 11.5% portion of that money to local governments and schools, just like with the sales tax from brick-and-mortar retailers.

Rubel says the state has collected $283 million in internet sales taxes since 2020 and sending a portion of that money to local governments and schools — just like sales tax collected at brick-and-mortar retailers — would reduce pressure on local budgets and property taxpayers.

“Not one penny has gone to local governments or schools, not one penny has gone to law enforcement because of this absolutely irrational and destructive law we have on the books that prevents the usage of internet sale tax for the schools, police, fire and communities that need it,” Rubel said. “That is top priority to finally rectify differential treatment of the internet sale tax.”

Last year, legislators used some of the money in the tax relief fund to pay for income tax rebates.

Idaho is poised for another record budget surplus

With the new session about to begin, Idaho is again sitting on a projected record-breaking budget surplus.

When the state closes the books for the fiscal year on June 30, Idaho is projected to end the year with a balance of more than $1.6 billion.

Some of that record surplus comes from carrying over the 2021 record surplus of $889 million into the 2022 budget.

But other chunks of money coming from the state’s three biggest revenue sources (sales tax, individual income tax and corporate income tax) are all up compared to a year ago.

“The budget will be one of 2022’s big topics because revenues are much greater than anticipated. To me, that’s the starting point,” Woodward said in a December phone interview.

Legislators and pundits expect Little to unveil some of his plans for the surplus and his Leading Idaho Plan during Monday’s State of the State address.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.