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The 2020 Idaho Legislative Session: Five Questions with Stephanie Witt

Stephanie Witt

In our “Five Questions” feature we ask scholars, activists, and public officials five short questions about their work (and other things). Here, Stephanie Witt discusses unintended consequences of decisions made by state legislators as well as changes to administrative rules. Witt is Director of Training for Boise State’s School of Public Service. She is also a Professor in the Master of Public Administration and Political Science programs.

By Kencf0618 – Wikimedia Commons

The Idaho legislative session is underway. What are you keeping a close eye on?

I’m especially interested in the relationships between levels of government, so I’m keeping a close eye on how the state shares (or shifts) costs of services with (to) local governments and on how the state makes rules about taxes that impact local governments.

You have talked about how decisions made by state lawmakers often have unintended consequences for cities and counties. Can you give us an example?

I think the best example of this has to do with the property tax. The property tax is the main revenue source for most local governments and is a tax on the assessed value of property. The property tax is administered by local governments, but the rules about how the property tax operates are set by the state legislature. Rapid growth in the urban parts of Idaho has led to significant increases in the assessed value of housing, and homeowners are noticing the rise in their property taxes. This is making taxpayers angry about the property tax. The legislature wants to be responsive to these angry voters, so they turn to proposals to add limits on the property tax. I say “add” because Idaho already has limits on the total revenues that can be collected from the property tax (3%).

The unintended consequences of additional limitations on the property tax are cuts in local services impacting schools, cities, and counties. In Boise City, for example, the property tax contributes two-thirds of the General Fund. Additional limitations to the property tax would significantly hamper the city’s ability to provide police, fire, parks, and other services at current levels. Adding to this dilemma is the fact that the legislature has a long-standing opposition to expansion of local option taxes, which could help take the pressure off of the property tax as the main source of local government revenue. Taken together, these constraints make Idaho local governments the seventh most fiscally limited in the United states.

It looks like there are going to be a lot of changes to administrative rules this year…what are administrative rules and why are they important?

Administrative rules are the details that explain how agencies will define and implement the statutes passed by the legislature. They have the force of law. Idaho’s administrative rule-making process is laid out in the Idaho Administrative Procedure Act. This law sets out the process by which rules are approved and include opportunities for public review and comment of proposed rules. The rules include everything from what content standards school districts must implement to the tonnage limits on commercial trucking. Administrative rules are important because they set out the scope and methods for what state agencies will do. As citizens, we don’t experience most laws in the abstract, but we do experience the on the ground implementation of laws that are often guided by administrative rules.

Why are there going to be so many changes to the rules this year? Are there any special areas of concern?

The 2019 session of the Idaho legislature ended in a fight between the House and the Senate over approval of all of Idaho’s administrative rules. Typically, the House and Senate approve the continuation of all of Idaho’s rules near the end of the legislative session. In 2019, however, the two chambers could not reach an agreement on approving the continuation bill, and therefore all of the over 8,000 rules had to be reviewed and renewed in this 2020 session. The fight centered around whether only one chamber of the legislature would be required to approve a new or changed rule or both chambers. Generally, the House leadership prefers both chambers, the Senate leadership prefers one.

The Governor’s office took advantage of the opportunity to review the rules for outdated or no longer necessary rules before submitting them to the legislature in 2020. They eliminated many, leading to the Governor’s boast that Idaho is now the “least regulated state in the nation.” The legislature is reviewing and approving all of the administrative rules now. Many rules are arcane and of little interest to most citizens. Others, such as the Common Core requirements in schools are generating days and days of hearings as the legislature revisits those rules.

You were recently part of the Legislative Session Pundits Forum at the City Club. What’s it like being on that panel?

In one word: terrifying. It’s quite a large crowd for the lunch, and I’m always aware that many more will hear the forum rebroadcasted over Boise State Public Radio. I’m never sure what’s going to be asked! I’m also really grateful to share the panel with such talented media experts. They follow the legislature moment to moment and usually know a lot more than I do about the latest issue to arise or who’s likely to support which bill. Their focus gives me a chance to speak more broadly about the process and channel my inner Political Science professor.