Wednesday, July 17, 2024

North Idaho legislators look to 2024 session

Hagadone News Network | January 7, 2024 1:00 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — With the 2024 Idaho legislative session set to begin Monday, some North Idaho legislators shared their priorities for this year.

Because 2024 is an election year, Rep. Elaine Price, R-Coeur d’Alene, said she expects the session to be a busy one.

“I believe we will see legislation on the library issue again,” she said Friday.

Last year, legislators passed a bill that would have allowed residents to sue for $2,500 in damages every time a minor obtained from a library any material that legislators deemed “harmful.”

Gov. Brad Little vetoed the bill, saying it would create a “bounty system” that is costly to libraries, especially ones in rural Idaho. Little said that, though he supported the bill’s intent to keep “truly inappropriate materials out of the hands of minors,” he criticized the bill’s ambiguous language and said “harmful content” is much more easily accessible to Idaho children through their phones than through their libraries.

“I believe there will be other legislation to protect our children and legislation to help law enforcement with fentanyl,” Price said.

Price indicated she’s working on legislation to help Coeur d’Alene City Council member and housing advocate Kiki Miller with a local workforce housing project related to mobile home communities.

She said she wants to be a voice for her constituents in North Idaho.

“Protecting our children and lowering taxes are two concerns I hear quite often from my constituents,” Price said. “Central bank digital currency is also a concern of my constituents.”

Rep. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, said it’s hard to predict what issues will take center stage each legislative session. But he suspects there will be a push for more tax relief.

“The legislature has been very successful in returning tax dollars to Idahoans over the past few years through direct rebates to taxpayers, income tax reductions and most recently a substantial property tax reduction, as seen on property tax statements that were delivered a month or so ago,” he told The Press via email.

Members of the Idaho Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee heard presentations this week on the state’s fiscal outlook. The committee’s role is to make an overall assessment of Idaho’s economic outlook and the general fund revenues to help shape the framework for budget discussions.

Revenues appear to be leveling out overall, according to data from Legislative Services Office. Withholdings remain strong and net sales taxes mostly match last year.

“We’re hearing from all the industry experts that Idaho is doing really well, comparatively, in the United States,” said Sen. Carl Bjerke, R-Coeur d’Alene. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Bjerke is vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, one half of the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which sets the state budget.

“A huge concern of mine is going to be the budgets,” he said. “We’ve got a completely different way of going about it this time that the two chairs have put together. I think it’s set up for efficiency and accountability.”

JFAC co-chairs Sen. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, announced last year that JFAC will change how it conducts business during this session. These changes include shortened public budget hearings followed by closed-door working group meetings and new legislative spending caps, which have not been finalized.

“One of our biggest threats is the lack of housing,” Bjerke said. “Not just affordable housing, but housing in general.”

Idaho remains the fastest-growing state in the country, with the population expected to exceed two million people in winter 2024, according to data from the Idaho Division of Financial Management. Since April 2020, 90% of Idaho’s population growth has come from from migration.

As house valuations level out and interest rates increase, Bjerke said he’s heard from constituents who are concerned about rising rent prices.

“It’s one thing to own your home and have that built-in capital and be paying on a mortgage that’s pretty high with a high interest rate,” he said. “But some of the renters are feeling the effect.”

Beyond the budget, Bjerke said he hopes to co-sponsor legislation on matters that are “near and dear” to him.

“We’re going to try to firm up some legislation that will provide a bit more freedom for people who are in medical facilities when it comes to visiting,” he said. “People say we’re out of this pandemic. A lot of what we do is preparing for the future. You don’t know what to expect for the future unless you look to the past.”

Bjerke also pointed to infighting among Idaho Republicans as a challenge to overcome during this legislative session.

“I see that as a distraction and I hope we have as few distractions as possible,” he said.

Bjerke said he’s focused on harmony.

“We’re all one big family and the more we pull in the same direction, the better the state’s going to do,” he said. “There’s all these factions and competing interests. They’re all doing what they think is best for the state. But the vitriol has come to a crescendo. I think people need to circle the wagons, get back to loving thy neighbor and find more commonality and talk about those things we can agree on, instead of identifying the big, glaring differences.”