Education, Education, Education

December 20, 2013

Location, location, location; we hear it from realtors, developers, and others as they identify the three most important reasons to buy or develop property. Obviously there are other important selection criteria but the emphasis serves to illustrate just how important that one variable is.

With the 2014 legislative session just around the corner I have thought about what the issues most likely to find the spotlight might be. If we were to apply the same point making redundancy as the local realtor the answer might very well be education, education, education.

Don’t get too far ahead just yet though. With 300 to 500 hundred pieces of legislation passed in a typical session, the next few months will serve up a smorgasbord of important decisions for lawmakers to consider. My bloated list of five; education, medication, incarceration, taxation, and transportation still leaves other important issues off the front page.

With all the heavy lifting ahead, why do I believe education will be center stage? A lot of it has to do with timing, appetite, and opportunity. Let’s look briefly at the issues:

· Medication I am not sure anyone now denies the disastrous rollout out of Obamacare. This alone will make the probability of expanding Medicaid a long shot. Now include apprehension over the federal debt, uncertainly about the federal match rate, and our political climate. Given those dynamics and more, lawmakers will be inclined to steer clear of anything that even hints of the President’s problematic policy.

· Incarceration I served on an interim committee this summer looking at criminal justice reinvestment and see opportunity for change. The committee is optimistic that cost saving legislation to be presented in late January will at least allow us to take some baby steps in the right direction.

· Taxation Last session H315 exempted the tax on the first $100,000 of personal property. This relief helped many of Idaho’s small businesses and cost the state about 20 million. No doubt there will be further efforts to phase out the tax. The problem is that it takes another 120 million to exempt all personal property. There is also concern over rules and definitions that clarify the legislation. With those uncertainties in play, I expect the legislature will allow the meal to settle before desert is ordered.

· Transportation It is estimated that Idaho needs at least 250 million to get our roads and bridges back in good repair. This will require an increase in revenue, plain and simple. While I do expect transportation to be prominently positioned on the radar screen next year, I don’t see anyone lined up to raise the gas tax come January.

· Education We talk all the time about an issue being ripe for the picking. Unless I’m missing something, harvest season is just weeks away for both K-12 and higher education. I don’t expect a bumper crop but enough stars are aligned to command our rapt attention.

We are all painfully aware of the significant economic downturn. Cuts were made in virtually every area of state government. Quite frankly, one needs only to look at the incomprehensible federal deficit in order to feel blessed by Idaho’s frugality and balanced budget.

That said, promises were made that education would be the last budget cut (and it was) and would be the first to be restored. I would never suggest that we have struck the mother lode in terms of revenue but Idaho is enjoying some hint of financial strength. It makes sense that first in line for both financial consideration and sound policy legislation should be education. Governor Otter’s education task force recommendations back that up.

Couple that with the fact that in 2003 only 50% of the school districts in Idaho passed supplemental levies. That number is now north of 71% and accounts for more than 15% of school districts revenue in many cases. It gives clear indication that local residents support schools. We should follow that lead.

Like the magician who diverts our attention in order to pull a card from his sleeve or rabbit out of his hat, the session will not be void of distraction. My hope is the temptation to re-plow old ground or political grandstanding will not trump our need to focus on some very important issues. This will require our concentration, concentration, concentration.

Idaho State Journal 12/20/13