Idaho legislators want to have say in federal stimulus funds | Northwest

BOISE — A $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill could keep the Idaho Legislature in session several weeks longer than normal, as lawmakers wait to learn more about the plan.

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the stimulus package today. Democrats hope to send the proposal to President Joe Biden for his signature by mid-March.

“If it comes to us that late, it will impact when we get out of here,” said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

The initial indication is that Idaho would receive more than $1.8 billion through the stimulus bill. That includes $1.2 billion in discretionary state funding, plus another $640 million that would go directly to local and tribal governments.

The Legislature will certainly want a say in how the $1.2 billion is allocated, Winder said. However, it may take time before any federal guidance is available on how it can be spent or what projects qualify. That could push the session past the end-of-March “sine die” target date, when the Legislature typically adjourns for the year.

“Until we know what the guidelines are, we can’t finalize the spending,” Winder said. “That will impact when we sine die.”

Once the Legislature adjourns for the year, it can’t call itself back into session. Consequently, if federal guidance isn’t immediately available, the House and Senate may choose to recess for a month or so, returning once the parameters are set.

The reluctance to adjourn stems in part from last year’s experience, when Gov. Brad Little resisted calls to bring the Legislature back for a special session.

Idaho received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds from the first stimulus bill last March. The money arrived after the session adjourned, so Little allocated it, based on recommendations from his Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee.

That didn’t sit well with lawmakers, even though most didn’t have major problems with the way the money was spent.

“We should be doing appropriations. That’s our constitutional authority,” Winder said. Consequently, “I think you’ll see a more hands-on approach from the Legislature this time around.”

Little’s budget director, Alex Adams, said the governor and legislative leaders have had a number of conversations about how these new stimulus funds could be handled.

The U.S. Treasury hasn’t provided any insight yet, he said, but it’s reasonable to think the restrictions will be similar to what was approved for last year’s Coronavirus Relief Fund.

“In general, that money had to be used for COVID-related expenses,” Adams said.

Besides paying for personal protective equipment and other health-related expenditures, the initial round of stimulus funding paid for small-business relief grants, broadband improvements, backfilled the unemployment insurance trust fund and offset public safety salaries to provide local property tax relief.

“It’s likely we’ll be allowed to do (those types of programs) again,” Adams said.

Winder hopes states also have flexibility to invest the money in long-term infrastructure projects.

“Once we meet the health care needs, I think we ought to be investing it in projects that save taxpayers money in the future,” he said.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, supported the initial small-business grants, but hopes there will be more “means testing” for any future grants.

“Last time, a lot of money went to businesses that were doing just fine,” Rubel said. “I’d like to see us focus on businesses that we know were hard-hit.”

She also noted that many Idaho students suffered “disastrous learning loss” because of disruptions of in-person classroom instruction. Addressing that problem, she said, will take a lot of money.

“It’s going to take after-school classes, tutors and summer programs,” Rubel said.

Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, said the business relief grants offered critical support to many small employers. He’d like to see more grant funding approved, as well as road and infrastructure investments, to the extent possible.

What he doesn’t want is for the state to use the federal dollars to avoid meeting its own obligations. He also opposes using stimulus funds for ongoing tax relief.

“If we use it to cut taxes, we’re just baking in a disaster for the future,” Nelson said.

Historically, lawmakers would have received per diem pay during a recess, until the session’s sine die. However, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, asked the Citizens Commission on Legislative Compensation to amend that provision last fall. As a result, the House and Senate can now suspend per diem until they’re back in session.

“If both bodies agree, we can recess to a time certain, maybe a month or so until the dust settles, and it won’t cost the taxpayers any money,” Bedke said.