Legislative preview:

Property taxes, COVID-19 response and high-priority transportation improvements

By Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle
Special to the Reader

The New Year is nearly upon us, which brings with it another legislative session here in Idaho. The Legislature will convene on Monday, Jan. 11, starting with the governor’s State of the State address. 

Sen. Jim Woodward

As usual, the address can be viewed on Idaho Public Television. What won’t be usual is the format for the event. Typically, the governor, the Legislature and the Idaho Supreme Court are all present in the House chambers, elbow to elbow, with lots of greetings and handshaking. This year we will all be in the Idaho Capitol, but with some distancing. 

The arrangement will be a first test of our ability to provide public access for the necessarily public process of creating or modifying our laws. Testifying in front of committees and meeting with legislators will be different this year, but still functional. The good news for those of us living long distances from the Capitol is that it is getting easier to participate in the legislative process without traveling to Boise. 

Property taxes will again be a topic for the legislative session. Our current system of determining property taxes does not work well during economic upswings or downturns. Real property values change rapidly during these times, although typically not at the same rate in the different categories of real property (residential, commercial, timber, etc.). If values in one category increase faster than other categories, the fast-appreciating properties pick up more of the total tax burden. 

In the past few years, residential values have risen at a rapid rate in Idaho. The result is a shift of the property tax burden to residential properties. The homeowner’s exemption is the means of shifting back some of the burden from residential properties. I am hopeful we will make an adjustment to the current $100,000 maximum exemption, but I am not certain if there is agreement in the Legislature.

The COVID-19 pandemic response has been the subject of much scrutiny this year. Our emergency planning laws are in Title 46 of Idaho Code under the Disaster Preparedness Act. The laws regarding health and safety are in Title 39. Most of these laws, which have been the basis for the pandemic response, were written in the 1970s and have not been tested under circumstances such as we have encountered this year. The Legislature will be reviewing and modifying these code sections. Hindsight is typically the clearest. I hope we are far enough down the road that decisions are for the improvement of policy instead of possibly being reactionary.

Looking at state finances, we are in great shape. Every year, we budget to have some amount of money left over at the end of the fiscal year. During the last session, we authorized $9.4 billion in spending, leaving $55 million as an ending balance. Currently, the projection for the ending balance has grown to $600 million. 

The additional funds are primarily from one-time sources. For example, the federal government has provided additional Medicaid funding this year, which is approximately $200 million of the $600 million balance. 

Income tax and sales tax collections are also up this year. After the busy year we saw locally with the influx of folks from outside the area, it is easy to understand why those numbers are up. Because we believe much of the money is one-time revenue, the intent is to make one-time investments, in a thoughtful and balanced manner, not obligating the state to future expenditures. 

Our transportation system is in need of improvements. I anticipate it will be at the top of the list. 

As Idahoans, I also expect we may put more money away for a rainy day. We do not have the funds set aside that we did prior to the 2008 recession, when considered as a percent of our annual budget. Finally, a portion of the extra funds will probably come back in the form of tax relief.

My focus will remain on the staples of state government. I continue to serve on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the Education Committee. New to me this year, I will be on the Transportation Committee as the vice-chair.

Thank you for the opportunity to represent the community at the state level. I look forward to hearing concerns and input on legislative actions. The easiest way to track legislation is on the legislative website: legislature.idaho.gov.

Jim Woodward is a second-term Republican member of the Idaho Senate, representing District 1. He serves as vice-chairman of the Transportation Committee and on the Joint Finance-Appropriations and Education committees. He can be reached during the upcoming session of the Idaho Legislature, which convenes Monday, Jan. 11 in Boise, at [email protected].

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