Do anything 

What is the Legislature waiting for anyway?

In the last week, Unda' the Rotunda twice bumped into lefty Idaho lobbyists walking the downtown streets. "What's up?" we asked them. "Nothing," one replied. "And that's a good thing."

In fact, much like us, these lobbyists have largely avoided the Legislature this year, barely testifying on bills. For them, it's been a lack of anti-environmental or anti-abortion bills that lends a reprieve from the annual battles.

For us, it's not a good thing. The delay tactics, the stalling and the excuses are what gets Unda' the Rotunda down. Rather than doing something about the down economy, lawmakers are sitting back on their haunches, playing a waiting game with voters.

First they waited for January revenue numbers. Then they waited for the federal stimulus package. Now they are waiting for February numbers, due sometime this week.

But the waiting is just a delay of the inevitable decision they will have to make: raise more tax revenue to pay for state government, or more likely, make the draconian cuts threatened in January?

So far, they have done nothing on either pole.

Now, for most Idaho legislators, doing nothing is a compliment to their governance. Idaho has many proponents of governing best by doing least, often to an extreme.

In average years, lawmakers come to town, pick an agency or two to scrutinize, hem and haw over new programs, maybe letting a little one squeak through and then go home with the status quo intact.

Maybe they'd ban dog fights or plead with the feds to end immigration or farm out a new tax exemption.

But this year is a bit different. Because of the economy and the paucity of tax revenue coming in to the state, the Legislature must make a bold move. That bold move—whether to raise taxes or make draconian cuts—has precluded any other moves on policy.

That means lawmakers have not floated many bills—just 330 of them so far, which is between 73 and 181 fewer bills to date than in any of the past five years, according to a recent Associated Press report.

That means not a lot of ideas.

And the area that is getting the most attention, road funding, is coming to a roadblock of its own.

Transportation funding stall

The governor wants to raise the budget of the Idaho Transportation Department and actually came out with a suite of bills to do that. His proposals will bring in increasing revenue over the next five years, eventually providing the department with an estimated $174 million a year more for roadwork.

Fairly bold move. One of his bills has actually passed the House, revoking a 10 percent tax exemption for ethanol, which would raise about $8.2 million to $12.3 million for the ITD.

But the others are held up in the House Transportation Committee, ostensibly over a debate about single vs. multi-year funding increases.

One of the governor's bills would eventually bring in $159.4 million in new vehicle registration fees, which would rise every year for the next five years. Two competing bills raise the fees just once, but bring in only about $21 million to $28 million.

That's apples and oranges. Rep. JoAn Wood, who runs the House Transportation Committee and whose bill is closer to $21 million, and Rep. Leon Smith, who threw in a bit more, are stalling.

Either increase the fees or don't, but don't make up sneaky ways to scuttle the deal.

Smith and Wood have similar, nearly identically worded, bills to raise the fuel tax once, competing with the governor's idea to phase in a fuel tax hike over five years.

It's a question of a nickel and maybe a few pennies per gallon. But it's also fair to question whether they want to do anything at all.

Stimulus school

Education funding faces an opposite challenge. While the hemming and hawing over highways revolves around a lack of desire to increase funding, with schools, the stalling is building capacity for actual cuts to school budgets.

Roads are probably going to get something out of the session, but schools may be cut back to the tune of $62 million, or more.

And that's after Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna flew to Washington, D.C., to find out how much money Idaho might get out of the federal stimulus package.

Fresh off the airplane, Luna told reporters in a phone call that some cuts to Idaho public schools may still be necessary.

"I don't want the impression out there that we are not going to see any cuts at all to education," Luna said.

The legislative session is now in its third month and none of Luna's 10 proposals have been introduced. There are bills to freeze teacher salaries and to eliminate state funding for field trips. But, predictably, both are just sitting in committee, waiting. Waiting.

Meanwhile, stimulus money available to Idaho for education spending is $351.5 million. Some of that will be built into future federal education spending, so money for special education and low-income students could become permanent under the Obama administration. Some of it will be used for equipment purchases or even for budget reserves.

But it's not going to shore up state spending on education in any ongoing, meaningful way. That's Idaho's own challenge this year.

What are they waiting for?

Luna, who is excited about the stimulus money and even acknowledges it will preserve teacher jobs and stimulate the economy through nurturing future workers, does not think it saves the state budget.

Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter has said he does not want to see stimulus money used for new programs or to replace state funding.

Legislators largely agree. So there is no reason to wait around in Boise to see what happens with the stimulus money, even if it is just to satiate their wonkish curiosity.

Legislators have enough information to set the budgets, raise the revenue, if any, required to pay for them and go home. But that means making up their minds.

And why make up your mind when you could wait until April to see what happens?

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