The legislative roller coaster

By Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise
Reader Contributor

When I started my first term in 2019, nearly every long-time Capitol observer told me it was the worst legislative session they ever experienced. In 2020, they told me that was the worst legislative session ever. And now they’re saying in 2021 this is the worst session ever — and we’re only at the halfway mark. Why is that?

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise.

Well, it’s like a roller coaster. It can be a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping experience. Or it can be a head-spinning, stomach-turning nightmare. Or both. But in the end, after all the ups and downs, twists and turns, white-knuckled fist-clenching and primordial screaming, you wind up back where you started.

It seems every year the legislative roller coaster becomes increasingly more extreme. The plunges are deeper and the turns skew sharper to the right (ejecting some occupants from their seats). But in the end, the Legislature makes little or no progress by the end of the session. Here’s a midway progress report on the issues voters tell me they care about the most:

• Funding education without constantly voting on school bonds and levies: nothing;

• Keeping up with the cost of living (low wages, high property taxes, soaring rents): nada;

• Affordable health care, including better mental health services: zip;

• Transportation infrastructure that keeps up with the rapid pace of growth: zilch;

• Protect access to public lands being blocked by out-of-state billionaires: nope.

Instead, the majority party has spent most of the time on bills that are either self-serving, politically motivated or just plain head-scratching: 

• Enabling the legislature to call itself into session anytime for any reason;

• Increasing the power of the Legislature over the executive branch;

• Increasing voter suppression by making absentee voting more difficult;

• Nullifying the constitutional right for citizen-driven ballot initiatives;

• Banning all future medical science development of psychoactive medications;

• Shifting $4 million taxpayer dollars into a slush fund controlled by a few legislative leaders;

• Allowing people to bring concealed guns into elementary schools;

• Making it easier for businesses to engage in price-gouging;

• A law to protect your kid’s neighborhood lemonade stand;

• And so on.

When the dizziness and nausea from the legislative roller coaster subsides, you can then head on over to the Fiscal Fun House! The Legislature is currently sitting on over $1.3 billion in a rainy day fund, a record budget surplus and an idle internet sales tax account. Instead of investing most of that money in education, infrastructure and vital services, the majority party introduced a bill that would divert a good chunk of it toward tax cuts that go mostly to businesses, the wealthy and the well-connected — while a family of four making less than $75,000 per year will likely see their taxes go up.

I and my colleagues have proposed legislation that will provide real tax relief for working families: 

• Invest internet sales tax revenue in education, which would reduce the need for perpetual school bonds and levies;

• Repeal the cap on the homeowner’s exemption, which would raise it from $100,000 to approximately $150,000 (if the majority party hadn’t capped it in 2016);

• Increase the circuit-breaker allowance to help offset property taxes for low-income seniors and people with disabilities (which hasn’t changed since 2006);

• Create a new earned income tax credit;

• Repeal those portions of the $2.5 billion in annual sales tax exemptions that don’t deliver a fiscal benefit to the state.

Unfortunately, majority party leadership has thus far refused to allow these ideas to be discussed, debated or come to a vote. It looks like the Legislature may once again fail to prioritize working families over its political squabbles. It’s time to get off this roller coaster.

Rep. Steve Berch is a second-term Democratic legislator serving District 15 Seat A in Boise. He holds seats on the Business, Education and Local Government committees.

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