By Zach Hagadone
Sandpoint Reader: What is the top challenge you see the state facing in the coming year? How might you face that challenge?
Sage Dixon The top challenge facing the state next session will undoubtedly be our budget. The COVID situation, and our reaction to it, has driven down economic activity, and both state and national economists expect between a 10-20% reduction in revenue in the upcoming year. This will make necessary a closer look at our budgets, as well as what is truly essential within those budgets.
The brunt of this discussion will be borne by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, but individual legislators can advocate for specific positions to the committee members and on the floor of the House during the presentation of the budget.
Providing as much stability as possible for the areas we are obligated to fund should be a goal.
SR: With the coronavirus pandemic affecting both municipal and state budgets adversely, do you foresee any crucial programs and/or agencies suffering? What ideas might you have to help fund those areas of the budget that might go by the wayside because of cuts?
SD: The COVID situation will put pressure upon nearly every area of the state budget and will require intense deliberation from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, specifically, and the entire Legislature, in general. The governor has already announced budget holdbacks, and has been as judicious as possible, but our requirement to have balanced budget forces cuts to be made.
If we reach a point that is as drastic as the recent recession, we have a well funded Budget Stabilization Fund (our “rainy day fund”), the Public Education Stabilization Fund and other reserve funds to draw from to try and keep critical portions of government functioning.
SR: Gov. Brad Little has taken heat from some Idahoans that believe his stay-at-home order was “unconstitutional.” Do you agree with Gov. Little’s decision? If not, how might you, as a legislator, have handled that differently?
SD: I believe Gov. Little has the authority to issue a stay-at-home order, and, given the information he is receiving, I believe he is doing what he thinks is best for Idaho.
Were the decision mine: I would have sought counsel from the Legislature early on. As the elected representatives of the people, we are most keenly aware of what is happening in our districts and how the public is feeling; I would not have treated the entire state in the same manner. Certain areas present more risk than others, and the damage to local economies is different as well.
I would have been more careful in my communication with the public. There was a way to protect the state from an unknown, without generating fear on one side and anger on another.
SR: The Idaho House and Senate battled during the 2020 session over the issue of how to institute property tax relief for Idahoans — especially in fast-growing counties. What would you, as someone on the “front lines” of the issue as a state lawmaker, like to see put in place? What policies need to change and why? How would you balance property tax relief with the need for growth to pay for growth?
SD: My ideal would be a constitutional amendment that would allow for property taxes to be held at the level they are valued at upon purchase of a piece of property. This would protect those on a fixed income, and provide a measure of stability and predictability for governments and citizens.
There are many facets to making this work, but I do think it is a good overarching goal. Restricting counties to either an annual 3% increase or counting the new construction rolls can help reduce budget increases, which, in turn, helps reduce property tax increases.
Raising taxes in other areas with the hope of lowering property taxes only shifts the burden, and local taxing districts have a more direct impact on rising taxes than counties do, in most cases.
SR: In what order of importance — and why — would you rank your top three budget priorities for the state of Idaho?
SD: Currently, the largest priority will be mitigating the financial damage due to the COVID-19 situation, both within our state budget and for our business owners. If 2021 were to be a normal fiscal year, the top priorities would most likely continue to be health and welfare, education and transportation. Some specific areas that need to be addressed are the burden public defense is placing on most of our counties, the overcrowding of our prisons, and our aging bridges and roads.
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