Governor Brad Little has been involved in Idaho politics too long to be quick to pass definitive judgement on the recently completed session of the Idaho Legislature. A session which was the longest in State history and has been termed the “worst ever” by detractors on both sides of the political aisle.
In a sit-down conversation with the Messenger Index last week the Emmett native tried to put some of the antics, actions and non-actions of the 2021 Legislative session in a more historic perspective.
“Obviously the actions taken to combat the coronavirus were a point of contention at the onset of this session,” Little said. “While there were legitimate concerns for both the executive and legislative branch in how to deal appropriately with emergency powers I believe we came to a reasonable compromise. We can’t remove emergency powers entirely and have any ability to response quickly when needed. Putting a time limit on some of those powers to allow legislative input on longer term implementation was reasonable.”
The calls by some members of his own Republican party to stack more power on the Legislative side of the “balance of power” met Little’s resistance but not his alarm.
“When one party controls such a large share of the legislature, there is a natural tendency to see efforts to make that power absolute,” Little said. “That’s not what our system was developed for. There is a wisdom in the separation of powers that has served our states and this country well.”
The acrimony between factions of the Republican party, and even between the House and the Senate seemed rampant at times this session.
“It was not nice at times,” Little admitted. “It’s not unprecedented. When 85 percent of the two bodies are one party, there is little perceived need to compromise and a risk of a schism can develop.”
Little remembers a similar environment during Governor Dirk Kempthorne’s administration. He also remembers the cohesiveness of his party when the political balance between parties was nearer to equal in the 1990s.
Governor Little quickly shifted discussion to the success he saw in the greatly increased funding for transportation and infrastructure needs.
“Despite a lot of noise, distractions, and of course the duration of this year’s legislative session, we were able to act on some of the issues that matter most in the day-to-day lives of the people we serve,” Little said.
With a record budget surplus to work with, and appropriation of Federal COVID aid dollars available as an additional tool, a number of needs were addressed.
Lawmakers approved legislation that more than quadruples the amount of state sales tax revenues to be shifted from the state’s general fund to road and bridge projects. Little enthusiastically signed that legislation.
“We have a tremendous backlog of infrastructure needs,” Little said. “That additional $80 million dollars of annual funding will be critical in helping us to meet those needs and the increasing transportation demands that growth is creating.”
Little pointed to the acceleration of the next step for the expansion of Highway 16 from Chinden Blvd. to the Interstate as an immediate result of the legislation.
While the full impact for Gem County users of Highway 16 is yet to be determined, Little is optimistic that the improved freeway access will benefit current commuters. It also may advance improvements to the Emmett end of Highway 16, Freezeout grade in particular.
“The Freezeout grade was heavily discussed nearly 20 years ago when there was conversation on a proposed Indian Valley route to connect the Treasure Valley to Highway 95 and northern Idaho,” Little said. “That would have created a Highway 16 by-pass around Emmett to connect to the entirely new highway. Growth demands and limited funding have changed that focus. We still need to do something with the passing lane issues on the grade and hopefully that can be addressed soon with this new accelerated funding.”
Little also gave gold stars to this Legislative session for pushing forward some of the educational career ladder funding he has championed in recent years.
The Governor gave passing but not excellent grades to the tax relief measures — both income and property tax — enacted.
While some homeowner property tax relief will be seen with the increase of the exemption cap from $100,000 to $125,000, Little admits its hardly likely to even keep pace with the rapid increases in property valuations.
“There is certainly legitimate concern that we haven’t done enough to address the continuing property tax pressues,” Little said. “We had to do something and we did but there is still more to do and we need to find some better solutions long term.”
While a focus was made on homeowner’s property taxes by legislative committees prior to this session, the actions taken primarily benefit some businesses with the easing of personal property tax assessments. Those benefits are seen as heavily weighted for larger industrial and technology firms.
Little warns that the biggest losers in the property tax battle may be renters. He pointed out that many people are mistaken to believe that renters don’t pay property taxes.
“You bet they do — I don’t know of any rental property owner that eats those costs,” Little said. “The high demand for rental property has pushed the market value of those properties up just as fast as personally owned residential property. And there is no homeowners exemption applied to those values. They pay on full values without any of the exemptions or allowances provide to agriculture, business or homeowners. This is going to become a critical point we will have to address as lack of affordable housing continues to be one of our biggest challenges.”
Little was non-committal regarding his plans to run for re-election. With seven or eight candidates already declaring intentions to run for his position — including those of his Lt. Governor — the first-term Governor appears willing to see what smoke clears before officially re-entering the fray. For now he has “enough administration of the new funding for roads and prudent administration of federal COVID money distributions to keep me occupied.”
The Governor’s visit to the Messenger Index wasn’t a one-off event, however. He is making his way throughout the State in the next few weeks — many for community events like the Emmett Cherry Festival — and the schedule doesn’t appear that of politician resigned to a one-term Governorship.