Sen. Michelle Stennett

{span}Sen. Michelle Stennett{/span}

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Leaders of the Democrat minority responded to the State of the State address delivered Monday afternoon by Republican Governor Brad Little.

Sen. Michelle Stennett:

Thank you for joining us, both virtually and in person. I am honored to continue serving as the minority leader in the Senate, and alongside my House counterpart, Rep. Ilana Rubel. Our caucuses remain committed to championing the best interests of all Idahoans and working to pass smart, thoughtful legislation that invests in all our people and our state’s future.

The 2021 session officially ended just seven, short weeks ago. Despite it being the longest in state history at 311 days, we accomplished little in the way of addressing some of the many critical issues impacting Idaho. We cannot allow unkept promises to happen again in 2022; we have to set aside political grandstanding and put working families first.

One of the primary areas of focus this session must be infrastructure, especially as our state continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. Idaho has 1.6 billion in state funds on hand, $1.9 billion with rainy day funds, and $1 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act which can provide timely investment opportunities for transportation, education, broadband, water and electrical grids, housing and health care. We can also expect even more funds from the federal infrastructure plan, further enabling us to make critical improvements in a variety of areas. Our state cannot afford to squander this opportunity, and we have to move Idaho forward.

Throughout the state, there are numerous roads, bridges and railway systems aging out and incapable of safely handling the heavier, longer and faster loads pressuring their antiquated structures. This is particularly true within our underfunded counties, where an unsafe bridge forces detours to school buses and commercial trucks, seriously impacting local economies.

Water and sewer systems are either inadequate for the increased demand, or so old, they need to be replaced. Growth is exacerbating the need for safe water and waste treatment facilities. If we make these investments now, we can vastly improve public safety and boost our economy by creating a number of jobs for our people, while also saving time and money in the long term.

Idaho’s per pupil spending continues to be one of the worst in the nation. Public schools struggle to find necessary resources, leading to insufficient teacher pay, no ability to find housing, increased staff turnover and crumbling facilities in both rural and urban areas. Growth only compounds this. Adding more students and curtailing educational services in an already beleaguered education system, harms teachers and students and does not adequately provide a skilled workforce for commerce, turning away high-wage employers from our state. And this will never change if the legislature continues to gut schools, skirting its constitutional obligation.

Last year, $2.5 million was cut from our higher education institutions, which act as the backbone of our state, fostering the next generation of leaders and boosting our economy. In 2021, 92 of Idaho’s 115 school districts ran levies totaling $217 million. What was designed as a fallback system is now used for core maintenance and causes property taxes to rise. Strong and successful communities start with our children’s schools. Empowering families with devices and broadband is a start, but school districts and teachers desperately need resources in the classroom too, to ensure facilities are safe and functional and children receive an excellent education no matter where they live.

Democrats have been working to install all-day kindergarten and early learning programs for years in our state. A full day of instruction helps boost literacy rates among children, and gives them a better foundation for success. Last session, a $6 million grant to fund early learning opportunities statewide was rejected. Idaho is one of four states with no public preschool; we had the opportunity to change that. Politics must never prevail over people, especially not our children.

That’s why we also must address our child care crisis. Families shouldn’t lose work or be unable to afford living needs because of a lack of child care. We can’t have a robust economy if there aren’t affordable, high-quality and safe facilities available to watch one’s children while at work. Staff at these places need to be paid appropriately as well, helping to attract and retain workers to combat the shortage.

The healthcare industry continues to struggle amid the pandemic as well, with too few workers and too little housing. Idaho has the least amount of health care workers per capita in the nation. A transition to telehealth has given some relief for patients, but many areas in Idaho — particularly medically underserved areas — have poor broadband. This is also true for remote learning in our schools. With our population growth and these added loads, our broadband demand is beyond capacity. We must also look to solve our housing shortage. The market has exploded, with little remaining inventory and inflated prices. Wages in Idaho are low and not keeping up with this boom. This unaffordability shuts out our hard-working families, our first responders, our workers, our seniors and our young adults who are the fabric of our communities. The governor mentioned his family’s many generations living in Idaho and his grandchildren’s ability to choose to stay here. All our youth should be able to choose to remain in Idaho and provide an economy where they can afford to do so.

Right now, we have a rare opportunity to be creative and strategic with our resources at all levels of government and the private sector. Partnerships and pooling resources can successfully tackle larger projects. More funding options and autonomy to cities and counties are imperative for local services and programs. Our ailing infrastructure needs cannot continue to be ignored or they will collapse, and neither can our schools. Idahoans deserve long-term benefits from their tax investment.

Rep. Ilana Rubel:

I echo Sen. Stennett, and again, thank you all for being here.

This is a time of great opportunity, but also great potential peril if we do not act responsibly. This session could go in one of two directions. We could use the resources we have to finally fix some of the serious problems that threaten our future — an underfunded public education system, a housing crisis, a property tax crisis and more. These problems could largely be fixed this year with the funds we have available. Or we could get bogged down in divisive social issues and let our real problems fester and worsen while the money we have in our treasury is showered upon the wealthy, without measurable benefit to the families of Idaho. We have the tools we need this year to set Idaho on a very promising course, and Democrats will be doing all we can to work across the aisle to make that happen.

First, I want to correct the notion of a “budget surplus.” This money was generated by systematically underfunding vital services. If you haven’t paid your mortgage or utility bills, you may appear to have a lot of money in your checking account, but you would not call that a true surplus or a sign of responsible management. That’s what’s happening here. Idaho has a lot of money in its bank account right now, but it is in large part due to irresponsible decision-making by politicians, where children and working families have been paying the price. We remain last in per-pupil education investment in America, as you just heard. We are still one of only four states with no early childhood education. These have contributed to alarming deterioration in our education outcomes, where we are seeing drops in literacy, performance scores, graduation and go-on rates.

Our lack of affordable child care is creating a workforce crisis. We have a foster care system on the brink of collapse due to underfunding. We have over 1,500 bridges in need of repair at an estimated cost of over $2 billion. We have a major housing crisis and a completely unfunded Idaho Housing Trust Fund — still unfunded under the governor’s budget.

Sixty-five percent of the emergency medical services around the state can’t get ambulances out on time because they have no money for adequate staff and must rely on volunteers. We have low-income seniors being driven from their homes by rising property taxes because the state took away their property tax assistance.

We very much appreciate that the governor’s proposed budget includes investment in some of these areas, but we are nowhere near out of the woods. Until we are out of last place in education, there is no time for a victory lap or to be planning income tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy and well-connected.

To be clear, the Democratic caucus is strongly in favor of tax relief, but not the trickle-down variety that the GOP supermajority delivers every year and are evidently planning again. Last year, we saw a bill that took $400 million out of the general fund that funds education so that they could give $10,000 tax cuts to millionaires while regular working folk largely received $50-100. Our GOP colleagues did this while cutting the higher education budget and leaving teachers so underpaid that 20 percent of Idaho teachers polled are strongly considering leaving the profession. This is precisely the opposite of what should be happening, and we are disturbed to hear they are planning to do the very same thing again.

Decades of data have shown unequivocally that trickle down economics does not work — never has, never will. Yet inexplicably, it remains the go-to strategy for Idaho’s GOP supermajority. This legislature has been a one-trick pony for years — every time we have any money in the bank, GOP legislators pass a bill to give that money away in income tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and corporations, and we are deeply disappointed that this is again the governor’s and GOP legislators’ intention. When it comes to tax relief, we think we should be laser-focused on reducing property taxes for the people of Idaho, not cutting income taxes for those at the top. And doing it in a way that protects and improves vital government services like education, infrastructure, and law enforcement.

We have listened to our constituents — they desperately want a break from sky-rocketing property taxes. I have never been contacted by a constituent seeking more income tax breaks for those at the top. It was the legislature that caused the property tax crisis, and they have the power and responsibility to fix it. Idaho Democrats have a robust slate of property tax legislation that are responsible, effective, and designed to protect and improve the services our citizens expect. We hope that we will not again be blocked from receiving hearings or votes, as has happened for the past three years.

The Democratic slate of property tax solutions includes the following:

1) Treating internet sales tax the same as in-store sales tax, so that the proceeds are shared with local government and the remainder remitted to the General Fund. Few people realize the sales tax they pay on internet purchases does not get used for schools or any community needs as normal sales tax would, but rather, it was used last year to fund an income tax cut for the wealthy. I have yet to meet any constituent of any party — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Bull-Moose — who thinks this makes sense. Had Idaho simply been treating all sales tax the same since internet sales tax collection began in 2020, it would have provided $36M in direct property tax relief through funding of local government services, like fire and law enforcement. It would have also yielded $275M to the general fund, which could have funded education to a point where it would have covered all the school levies in the state — potentially another $218M of property tax relief just this year. As more sales shift online, the loss to our schools and local services is only going to get worse; this must be fixed.

2) Meaningful increase in property tax relief for low income seniors, veterans and those with disabilities, reversing the effect of HB389 passed last year that stripped property tax assistance away from over 4,000 low-income seniors.

3) Restoring the indexed homeowners exemption, which would effectively raise that exemption from the current $125K to $175K.

4) Allowing impact fees on new development to pay for new school construction, so that growth pays for growth and long-standing property owners don’t have to foot the bill for that growth.

5) Capping assessment increases so homeowners don’t see shocking increases because of shifts in the housing market that are outside their control.

These are genuine solutions that actually improve essential services while cutting property taxes. We hope the public will help us push these ideas forward so we are not once again denied the ability to get hearings and votes.

Why would we instead pass a tax cut for the rich when we can’t pay ambulance personnel to come when a person is having a heart attack? The Office of Performance Evaluations released a recent report showing just 18 percent of emergency medical services directors say their agencies are able to maintain sufficient staff. As a result, response times and standards of care drop off substantially in rural areas. Democrats plan to run a bill to combat this.

We also have legislation to give financial help to educators willing to teach in rural and underserved areas, provide for a full-day kindergarten option, actually fund the Idaho Housing Trust Fund, allocate one-time facilities funding to school districts that can be used to pay down bonds, eliminate the grocery tax, seal records for individuals who have committed minor criminal offenses, allow medical cannabis to alleviate the suffering Idahoans who are now forced into opioid use to address their pain, improving processes for sexual assault survivors, and numerous others.

There is much opportunity to work across the aisle this session, devise bipartisan solutions, and do some real good for the people of Idaho. Democrats are ready to make that happen in 2022, and hope our colleagues are as well.

Again, thank you all for listening.

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