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One week out, a look at this year’s legislative session

With the 2017 Idaho legislative session just around the corner, local lawmakers say they expect this year’s session to be a busy, and possibly contentious one. The state is enjoying a budget surplus of an estimated $132 million. Idaho is also the third fastest growing state in the country, meaning there are a lot of places that extra money could go.

Several regional representatives spoke with KIFI/KIDK about what they thought this year would bring. The most common topic by far, was funding for education.

“We’ll fund the career ladder, that was one of our promises from last year,” said Julie VanOrden, (R) Representative from District 31 in Bingham County. “We also have student growth that we fund every year, so we’ll make sure we’re covering that. We also had promised our school districts a new assessment for low readers, so that will come this year too.”

VanOrden as well as Jeff Thompson, a representative from District 30 in Idaho Falls, both said education could see a funding boost of nearly $105 million. A decent portion of that will go towards the career ladder and teacher pay to attract more teachers to the state.

Another major topic will be transit funding for road repairs and improvements. “We know that we have a transportation funding shortfall, in spite of the fact that we increased fuel taxes,” said Dean Mortimer, a state senator from District 32. “Our bridges our deteriorating. So should we take some of that excess, and put that into our transportation road system?”

Right now, extra road funding is financed by a surplus eliminator, or a system that takes money from a budget surplus and directs it towards the transit fund. That clause is set to expire shortly, and lawmakers want to create a more permanent funding solution for Idaho’s roads.

A third popular topic are tax cuts. Representative Neil Anderson of District 31 in Bingham County said he’s heard a lot of rumblings of reducing or restructuring the state income tax. He was unable to get specific, but he did say a lot of state lawmakers are leaning that way with several years of budget surplus.

Several lawmakers also want to put aside some money towards a rainy day fund. Representative Thompson said the state drew down its reserve during the recession and lawmakers want to build it back up. “Even though we have all this money coming into the general fund, we have to be very careful how we spend that and how we replenish our rainy day accounts,” said Thompson.

Some topics that lawmakers were less sure about were Medicaid expansion and cannabis legislation. Both Mortimer and Anderson believe lawmakers will discuss and look at covering those Idahoans in the so-called “Medicaid gap”, but they’re not sure what will happen. Anderson noted that with President-Elect Donald Trump promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, the state could have to make some quick decisions that are hard to anticipate.

All four legislatures said they’re very cautious about any changes to Idaho’s cannabis laws. VanOrden said she spoke with several local law enforcement officers who oppose allowing marijuana in Idaho. She said many state leaders are watching what happens in other states first, before they make any changes at home.

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