Western State Reporters Say Taxes, Education Top 2000 Agenda

Reporters from eight Western states identified tax policy, education funding, health care reforms and apportionment of the states' tobacco settlement funds as the most pressing issues likely to be addressed by their states in the next legislative year.

Over 50 journalists from Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming repeatedly mentioned those topics during a recent statehouse reporters' conference in Boise, Idaho.

Almost all of the eight states will consider significant changes in tax policy in the next year. Washington politics could be deeply affected by fallout from Initiative 695, an effort to eliminate the state's unpopular levy on car registrations. If voters approve I-695, much of the legislative session will be devoted to patching a $1 billion budget shortfall opponents say it will leave beginning January 1, 2000.

Nevada also faces a major tax policy referendum, as voters will decide the fate of a proposal to increase gaming taxes in the state. In another referendum, Oregon voters will decide on repealing a gas tax hike approved this year by legislators.

Montana legislators are expected to revamp the state's property tax laws this year. And Wyoming legislators face an expected $200 million budget shortfall and will be forced to consider tax hikes, though they've all but abandoned the idea of a personal income tax. Wyoming, still dependent on oil and mineral severance tax revenue, has experienced little of the economic prosperity enjoyed by neighboring states.

Education will again be a major issue in most of the Western states. Arizona and Idaho legislators will be forced to reassess their education construction budgets, while Utah, Oregon, Nevada and Montana legislators will seek to substantially improve their respective educational systems.

Arizona legislators are facing a court order to spend an additional $1 billion for upgrading educational facilities. They are also under pressure to improve statewide testing standards.

Arizona is also one of five states focusing on health care issues, including mental health funding and health care proposals that would be funded by the tobacco settlement. Lawmakers in Washington will consider a "Patients Bill Of Rights." Oregon, Idaho and Montana will also face major health-care issues, the reporters said.

Both Montana and Arizona will be dealing with the first legislatures elected under new term limit laws, while Montana will also begin the next legislative session with a newly elected governor.

The statehouse reporters attending the Boise conference said the following issues will also be addressed by their respective states:

  • Arizona's big issue will be "Growing Smarter," an open space initiative adapted from a Colorado program called "Growing Smart." Other issues will include bilingual education, public funding for a hockey stadium and decriminalization of marijuana.
  • Idaho issues will include the possible repeal of term limits, parental consent for abortions, a minimum wage for farm workers and Indian gaming.
  • Montana lawmakers will revisit the utility deregulation plan they adopted in 1997, focus on prison reforms and look at new economic development policies.
  • Nevada's biennial session will deal with the growth explosion in Southern Nevada, an effort by teachers' unions to push a business tax referendum and the post-Census voting district reapportionments.
  • Oregon's other big issues are likely to be redistricting, a video-poker ban and a statewide referendum on how to spend the state's tobacco settlement funds.
  • Utah's hot button issues will be education, the tobacco settlement and gun control.
  • Washington lawmakers will address the growth of mini-casinos, rural development and cutting unemployment insurance taxes for businesses.
  • Wyoming, in the wake of widely publicized trials associated with gay murder victim Matthew Sheppard, will again take up hate crimes legislation in a session that will otherwise highlight tax and budget issues.

Tags: Education, Health