New senators and representatives are in Boise this week for orientation and organizational meetings, and by the looks of it, the legislators are gearing up to work on the issues they plan to tackle in 2011.
Some legislators are looking to deal with budgets, taxes, and spending, while one from north Idaho – Rep.Kathy Sims, R- Coeur d’Alene – wants to reform urban renewal districts. Others, like Sen. Steve Vick, R-Hayden, Rep. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, and Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Hayden Lake, want to deal with policy issues, but also want to wage ideological battles t0 fight back the encroachment of government on the lives of private citizens. Rep Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, says he will take issues as they come, but is open to hearing proposals about raising state revenue.
Vick, who ousted former Sen. Mike Jorgensen in the GOP primary election earlier this year, told IdahoReporter.com that he wants to spend his time thinking about the state’s budget, possibly a good idea because lawmakers will need to find solutions for a looming budget gap that could reach $400 million. “I would like to work on tax policy,” said Vick, who has experience in that area because he dealt with it during his time in the Montana Legislature.
For Vick, the fight against too much government might go hand-in-hand with revenue woes. “I think we have a good opportunity because of the budget to scale things back,” Vick explained. “I’m here to work on liberty issues, areas where the government has become too involved.” The Hayden Republican says that even with the cuts made earlier this year, – including a $128 million decrease in spending for public schools – there is likely more room to cut. “We have an entitlement culture and I think we have an opportunity to change that,” said Vick.
Vick is joined in that feeling by Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Coeur d’Alene, who replaced District 3 Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, who retired this year. Barbieri says that citizens in his district acknowledge that without tax hikes, cuts will be necessary in 2011. “They recognize that cuts have got to be made in government because it’s gotten too big and too intrusive,” he explained. “So, that’s what I am here to do.”
Barbieri says that even though he won’t have a seat on the budget-setting committee in the House, he will support lawmakers deciding on tough budget proposals.
Sims is one legislator who is coming to Boise with a specific bone to pick with state law. She believes that the Idaho Legislature must work to reform urban renewal districts to give taxpayers more say in how their tax dollars are being spent. “They have no bosses,” said Sims of the renewal agencies. “This is a problem the Legislature created and the Legislature needs to fix it.” The Coeur d’Alene Republican, who filled the seat held by Rep. George Sayler, a Democrat, before his retirement, says that urban renewal agencies must be accountable to someone.
Vick and Sims and a handful of other new legislators are sure of one thing: they will vote against any tax increases proposed, at least while the economy is still struggling. Vick says that he ran on a no-tax-hike platform and that he will do what his district desires. Sims agrees and says that more cuts to state spending are on the way if she has any say in the process. “The numbers that I’ve seen so far don’t tell me we have to raise taxes. There’s no way I’m going to vote for a tax increase on 68,000 unemployed Idahoans,” Sims said, referring to Idaho’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
But not all lawmakers are cut from the same cloth, even if they reside within a single party. Bateman, who replaced Republican Rep. Russ Mathews who left to run for the U.S. Congress, is skeptical of tax hike talk, but says he will listen to all proposals and wouldn’t give a firm commitment against raising rates. “I want to hear proposals about revenue enhancements,” Bateman said Wednesday. “I’ll listen and keep an open mind about everything. I’ll be objective and open-minded.” Bateman also explained that he plans to deal with issues that arise during his time in the Legislature and that he isn’t planning any major reform efforts.
Guthrie, who took the seat vacated when Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, retired, says he also doesn’t have plans to spearhead any major legislation, but will instead focus on battling against increases in tax rates.
Specifically, Guthrie says increases in “sin taxes” on cigarettes and alcohol won’t go far with him because he worries about a slippery-slope of regulation. “Objects that are candidates for sin taxes, who gets to decide what those are?” he asked. “Is it sweets, someone who drinks too much pop, or potato chips? I tend to worry about what roads we go down.”
Unlike Sims and Vick, Guthrie wouldn’t decisively swear off tax hikes, but he says an increase in dollars people pay to the government wouldn’t be acceptable given the economic conditions of the day. “I made a commitment during the campaign that I would be very resistant to tax increases because I don’t think the economic climate is geared for that right now,” he explained. “I think we need to be sensitive to the fact that people from all walks of life are struggling.” To rebuild the economy, he believes, the state will need to provide a stable business climate to lure more companies to the Gem State.
New lawmakers received orientation and training this week at the Capitol in Boise. Legislators – newcomers and veterans alike – receive committee assignments Thursday in preparation for the 2011 session, slated to begin Jan. 10.