Gov. Brad Little is fond of talking about the “lightest hand of government” when it comes to passing laws and rules in Idaho. He has repeated this mantra for as long as he has been in public office. He said it again at the recent American Falls Capitol for a Day. However, during his nearly two decades of public service, Idaho’s state government has taken on an authoritarian bent, attempting to stifle local control and silence the rightful voice of the Citizens of Idaho.
Make no mistake, the heavy hand of Idaho state government is real and getting more burdensome. Of course, as the governor is fond of saying, the Idaho Legislature makes laws, not the Governor. However, that is largely a dodge since he signs or vetoes.
One of the most recent examples of Idaho state government’s heavy hand is in process right now: rewriting the Medicaid Expansion law voters passed by 61 percent.
The people of our state voted Medicaid Expansion into law with a resounding thumbs-up. Some Idaho Republican legislators immediately spent much of the 2019 session attacking the peoples’ law and attaching a series of unnecessary and expensive restrictions.
They openly labeled voters “pigs”. They called the initiative process that made passage of expanded Medicaid possible “mob rule” and tried to make it virtually impossible to ever again allow the people to speak directly through the initiative process.
The lightest hand of government? I think, not!
Legislators crafted and enacted a restriction designed to steer low-income Idahoans into taxpayer-subsidized Idaho Health Exchange plans costing twice as much as Medicaid Expansion. A nonpartisan legislative budget analysis estimates this restriction will cost Idaho taxpayers 42.5 million dollars annually.
Other intrusive expanded Medicaid restrictions passed by the Idaho Legislature in 2019 include provisions aimed at denying Idaho families access to their preferred doctor and denying healthcare to people who fill out paperwork improperly. Managing the paperwork penalty will create another entirely new bureaucracy costing Idaho taxpayers millions of dollars per year.
Paperwork penalties? Dictating doctors? Making more expensive, less comprehensive insurance plans the default for low income citizens? It is difficult to characterize these deliberate acts as the “lightest hand of government."
Governor Little touted the number of regulations his administration has eliminated as an example of his light touch at Capitol for a Day in American Falls. The department changes are numerous and hopefully streamline a variety of processes. However, as one hand of state government eliminates regulations and the bureaucracy they require, the other hand creates new expensive regulations with new bureaucracy and intrudes state government farther into the medical lives of private citizens.
If you own a home, Idaho’s heavy hand is dipping into your bank account. According to Alan Dornfest, property tax policy chief for the Idaho Tax Commission, “When values in one type of property — primary residential — increase faster than those in other types, such as commercial, farms, timber, then taxes increase faster for that sector”.
The property tax burden statewide shifted significantly to residential property owners in 2018. This results in homeowners shouldering their biggest property tax burden in a decade. The official Idaho property tax report for fiscal year 2018 shows residential property accounted for 65.8 percent of property taxes statewide. Commercial property contributed 27.2 percent; agricultural, 2.6 percent; timber, 0.5 percent; mining, 0.2 percent; and operating property, mainly utility property including power lines and railroads, 3.8 percent. Every tax and fee break state and local governments grant businesses shifts the tax burden further onto the shoulders of homeowners.
This isn’t just about rising property values. In 2016, elected state lawmakers capped the property tax exemption at $100,000 — no matter what your home is worth. Prior to that, exemptions were “indexed” according to market prices. In other words, as home values rose, so did the exemption. Unfortunately, once again, Idaho’s heavy-handed government quietly intruded and put their hand directly in our pockets. Regardless of how the legislature dresses it up, our elected state leaders raised property taxes for many homeowners in 2016 with barely a whisper.
The Idaho Legislature’s heavy hand, aided by governors’ pens, has also prevented communities from enacting local option taxes, implementing minimum wages, and banning plastic bags. Laws prevent the use of eminent domain to create greenway bike and footpaths. However, when it comes to operating and developing mines, the “light hand of government” descends and eminent domain may be implemented. Whether or not one supports any or all of these issues, local decisions belong at the local level.
Idaho is a large, diverse state. Many issues may not be popular/appropriate in all Idaho communities. When the Idaho Legislature dictates at the local level, overrules laws enacted through the initiative process, or quietly institutes burdensome tax practices for homeowners, citizens lose respect for government and disengage.
America’s Founders, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, believed in preserving power in local government. They envisioned an engaged and informed electorate debating local issues in town halls and public forums.
The “light hand of government” is a tarnished phrase. I challenge Governor Little and state legislators to walk the talk. It is time for the Idaho Statehouse to get off our backs, solve the many “big picture” issues facing our state, and respect Idaho citizens.
Chris Stevens of Pocatello is a former not-for-profit corporation founder and director, school administrator, and rock and roll radio promotion director. Her current passions are landscaping, grassroots political organizing, and volunteering for socially and environmentally conscious organizations. She is a co-founder of the Gateway Coalition for Change and is proud to have settled in Idaho.