North Idaho lawmaker Shawn Keough just started her 9th term in the Idaho Legislature. For 18 years she’s been representing Idaho’s 1st Senate District, that’s Bonner and Boundary Counties. Keough, a Senate Republican, has spent much of her tenure on the Legislature’s main budget committee, JFAC.
In advance of the legislative session that starts Jan. 7, we spoke with Sen. Keough about issues sure to rise to the top; education, taxes, and health care.
Q: What are your priorities this session?
A: We need to have a continued look, and do not lose sight of where we are with our state revenue. There is a level of service that the public expects. It doesn’t matter, one philosophical bent, if someone wants to get out of their driveway to get to work, and the road isn’t plowed, we hear from them. It was suggested that none of us on our panel addressed government tightening its belt, and we have cut the budget substantially in the last four years. That has affected Idahoans daily lives. Whether that’s the ability to keep roads plowed for school buses and people getting to work. Whether someone has a disability, through no fault of their own, and are unable to take care of themselves, we’ve diminished that service. So we need to remember those things as we look at our budget picture.
Then, you put on top of that our desire for personal property tax relief. I’m a proponent of getting rid of the personal property tax because of the inequities. But we need to do that in a big picture way, not in a vacuum.
I think education will continue to be a discussion. The reforms failed, but there is still momentum behind those, behind those who championed them. My hope is, I’m very proud of Gov. Otter for the leadership he showed directly after the vote and his actions since then to bring together a stakeholder group that’s very inclusive; I applaud his leadership on that. I think what we did here, regardless of a person’s position on those reforms, is we need to have this discussion about what we want our system to look like. Having that be inclusive is a good step.
Q: Do you think this session will be a cooling off period on education reform ideas?
A: My hope is we’ll see a cooling off period where we have an active and engaged dialogue by a diversity of the stakeholders, and everyone represented at the discussion table. I don’t think it’d be good for us to rush through bits and pieces without a deliberative process. The voters were very clear. When you look at the number of people who voted no, and compared that with the number of people who voted for Gov. Romney, it’s very telling that it was a bipartisan message that the expectation of the public in Idaho is that we’ll have a more inclusive discussion. It would not be good as public servants to ignore that.
Q: The state has been in and out of court over the last couple of decades over the way schools are funded. There is a new lawsuit working its way through the court system that contends Idaho is shirking its constitutional duty to provide free and uniform public schools. Is Idaho funding education to the best of its ability?
A: When I was first elected that was one of my campaign platforms, that we need to get our fair share of funding for education across the state. I don’t know there will ever be a pat answer for that. This is a huge state, geographically. The dynamics of land ownership and where property taxes come from are different across the state.
Every community has a different set of challenges when they look at funding our schools. And then how do you define ‘thorough’. For a while, I worked on trying to define ‘adequate’. And it’s very difficult to do, and quite frankly I don’t know if we ever get to the answer. I’m not one to say you’ve got to have X amount of money per student, and that makes it OK. I think you’ve got to try and get each student to a certain level within their capacity. I don’t know how you meld that together. I used to think it was black and white, and I don’t think that anymore.
I would continue to develop a definition of what is adequate. It ought to be based on class size. There is data that shows what an optimum class size is per grade level. I think the level of education for the teaching corps ought to be included. Access to the internet, there are still holes in our backbone. That tool opens up and levels out the opportunity for equity across the state, regardless of where you are. But it still needs help. It still doesn’t work as well as it needs to. I’m from a rural area, and I see that. But then I listen to my colleagues from urban areas and they say the rural areas have benefits they don’t. That goes back to how our state is structured. I think it’s a constant effort and measurement to see if we’re doing the very best that we can in an adequate and equitable way across the state.
Q: You mentioned being mindful of the cuts the Legislature has made over the last few years, does that mean you’d like to see more money go into those programs that have been cut?
A: I think that we have to take a very strong look at our services for the disabled and mental health areas. Not only from a human compassion perspective, but from the cold hard fact that we can be providing the service and care that’s needed at less cost than crisis care. The challenge will be that we continue to have more basic budget needs, than we have money coming in. So how do you do that?
Q: I’d also like to ask about Medicaid and the health insurance exchange. The governor created two work groups to study whether Idaho should expand Medicaid eligibility and whether the Idaho should create a state-based exchange. Both of those committees said yes. What do you want to see happen?
A: In both instances, it seems like the people who worked on those committees – it showed that expansion makes sense fiscally. I think Idaho tends to forget that we get more back for our tax dollar than we put in. For every dollar we put in, we get a dollar plus back.
I was a proponent of health insurance exchanges before the Affordable Care Act went into place because there is a need to make health insurance more accessible to everybody, especially small businesses. I’ve always been a proponent of the state being in control of its own destiny where it can be. I understand the frustration of the people who are opposed to the federal exchange, but I worry they do not understand that saying no means the feds will come in. It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to get an exchange, it means the feds are going to come. That is contrary to ever philosophical thought I’ve had in that the state needs to express its sovereignty, and drive the train. I would prefer to continue to drive our train, and not let the feds do it. But then I think well, maybe we should say no, and let the feds come in and see what no truly means.
This interview has been edited and shortened.