Usually these first couple of weeks at the Statehouse are pretty slow, news-wise. Committees are hashing out the rules agencies wrote over the interim, new chairmen and new members are just getting their feet wet.
But you can usually get a glimpse of some of the discussions building up, like storm systems in the atmosphere...
Here are a few I'm keeping an eye on:
1) School labor issues.
The Students Come First laws grouped union and labor changes in with classroom changes, so it may not be very clear to all the players exactly which ideas the voters rejected. Certainly the GOP majority in the Statehouse has made several moves over the years to weaken union power, but the teachers, and their Idaho Education Association, have been among the last to keep a steady presence.
When Gov. Otter's education task force decided last week to leave labor issues to the Legislature and focus on classroom questions, I started expecting both sides to gird up for a political fight at the Capitol. I haven't heard a lot since, but my money is on that debate taking place this year.
The IEA had shown in years past that it could be a powerful force come election season, but as more and more moderate Republicans were edged out in primaries, that influence may have seemed to be waning. But the group and its supporters certainly played a huge role in the statewide defeat of the education reforms. If lawmakers do go after some of the labor changes the group opposes, we may see how much influence, sway and power the IEA yet holds.
2) Statehouse speech.
The Department of Administration's proposed rules regulating protests and events at the Statehouse have caught the attention of legislators for what should have been a pretty obvious reason: the agency didn't go through the very public negotiated rulemaking process. On such a sensitive topic, with potentially big implications on constitutional rights, lawmakers from both parties questioned the wisdom of releasing 39 pages of rules in this way. That doesn't mean they'll vote against them, but it's worth keeping an eye on this week.
The courts have long allowed governments to restrict free speech with so-called "time, place and manner" rules - you can't drive around a truck with microphones at midnight through residential streets blasting your political beliefs, for example. The Statehouse has had rules about how and when you could protest on the Statehouse steps, but when the Occupy Boise protesters converged on the old Ada County Courthouse, folks realized those rules didn't extend to other state grounds.
The could be a simple matter of clarifying the rules, but if they are making them far more complicated, as some people indicated in a hearing earlier this week, then the lawmakers could end up questioning just how much they want to hamper the folks who want to come speak out. I think the national debate over gun control could color this as well - some folks may ask themselves how much they are willing to potentially stifle 1st Amendment freedoms for convenience while fighting against any move that could stifle 2nd Amendment freedoms in the name of public safety. Maybe this is one of those moments when both sides learn a bit about where each other are coming from.
3) The governor's race.
So what if it's not for two more years - folks around this building can't get enough of it. Speculating is the official sport of the Idaho Statehouse. The 2012 election results (with moderates holding off attacks in the primary and Republicans winning across the board but the Republican-pushed school reforms failing in the general) shaped the GOP crowd a little, with Luna dropping off the leaderboard, Labrador holding steady and Lt. Gov. Little edging back up, or so hallway wisdom seems to indicate. Of course, it all depends on whether Gov. Otter decides to run again, which he has said is possible.
4) A potential nexus?
The state's biggest businesses are pushing hard for a personal property tax cut, but Gov. Otter's budget only contemplates $20 million of the estimated $140 million cost. He has suggested a multi-year roll-out, couple with, perhaps, local-option taxing authority to help make up the cost. But it is going to be extremely hard to find a solution that works for Caribou County, which gets 43 percent of its entire budget from this business tax, and Blaine County, which gets just 1.41 percent from it -- and everyone in between.
Blaine could easily raise a bunch of money with a local-option sales tax or income tax, Caribou would almost certainly be unable to make a dent in the cut.
Traditionally, as similar property taxes were taken off of pots and pans, cows and sheep, and ag equipment, the money was replenished by state coffers, either in new taxes (like the 1965 sales tax) or a growing state economy. The economy hasn't grown enough to make the shift work easily this time, but lawmakers did agree to Otter's estimate that revenues would grow 5.3 percent next year - the biggest jump in a while. If that keeps up, the debate could slowly resolve itself over the next couple of years.
Though it isn't political popular, and more than a longshot this year, I think there could be talk of using an expanded Medicaid program, allowed under federal health reforms, to save counties money in a way that ties into a cut of the personal property tax. Counties pay for the health care costs of indigent residents, with help from a state fund, and at least some of these costs could potentially be shifted to federal dollars (the feds pay most of Medicaid, but the state has a match of around 30 percent or less, depending on the specific program). The counties have said - tell us which mandated costs we can avoid and we can swallow some of the proposed cut. This is one place to start.
Gov. Otter has indicated he's more interested in exploring federal waivers, which essentially let the state try to address the needs of the same population in its own way, so even if Idaho doesn't conform exactly to the new rules, you could see movement next year to bring some of these new federal dollars to Idaho.
5) The "woodwork effect."
And speaking of Medicaid, folks reported this week that even without expanding the program, Idaho could see some 70,000 new people on the federal health program. Half of them are folks who already qualify but live without health insurance (and will be subject to the individual mandate that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year). The other half are newly eligible thanks to a new way income is calculated.
In years past, Idaho budget writers have been stunned by the folks who "come out of the woodwork" - I remember a debate over how much to advertise the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which covers low-income kids with a mix of federal and state dollars. When the state was going out of its way to let parents know about the program, a lot of those parents realized they were eligible for Medicaid, too.