North Idaho Facing Fight For Attention Abortion, Election Year Machinations Likely To Stifle Locally Important Issues
With schools crumbling and overcrowded, prisons bursting with nonviolent offenders and a dangerous two-lane highway connecting the state, North Idaho legislators have plenty to work on as they head to Boise this week.
But when they arrive, they’ll find a legislative session that could well be dominated by southern Idaho politics.
That’s because at least three lawmakers - including House Speaker Mike Simpson - are vying for the Republican nomination for Congress in the 2nd District. The legislative session provides a ready-made forum for those candidates to stake out stands on issues that will appeal to 2nd District Republican voters.
Already, Simpson has promised to make 1998 the first session since 1990 in which the Legislature will take up the issue of abortion. “I’m not sure it would’ve come up other than the fact that this is an election year, and particularly because of the 2nd Congressional District,” Simpson admitted in an interview.
To complicate matters, every seat in the Idaho Legislature is up for election this year. The primary election is May 26, only a month or two after the close of the legislative session.
Legislating is “a messy business,” said Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University professor and head of BSU’s public affairs program. “The farther you go into the legislative session, the more one bill is related to all other bills. And if there are some real hot-button issues introduced in this legislative session, it could affect the entire legislative agenda and lead to some real division among the Republican ranks.”
Idaho has the most Republican legislature in the country, Weatherby noted, with the GOP holding 85 percent of the seats. Yet, to the frustration of some social conservatives, “the leadership in both House and Senate as well as the governor have put their focus on fiscal issues, almost to the exclusion of social issues.
“It will be a real test of leadership as to whether or not they can maintain that focus in the ‘98 session.”
Here are some of the issues lawmakers will face this year:
School buildings. With the state providing no funding at all for school buildings - leaving that to local property taxpayers - and a two-thirds vote required to pass a school construction bond, Idaho makes building schools tougher than any other state. As a result, some North Idaho children attend school in double shifts that leave them in class long after dark. Others make do with deteriorating buildings that clearly are unsafe.
A lawsuit by school districts against the state was tossed out last year, when a judge said the state Constitution requires the state to provide education, but not buildings.
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I can’t in my mind fathom that. Our founding fathers put so much emphasis on education of the people. … I can’t imagine that they were envisioning a school system without buildings.”
Some attempts are expected this year to lower the two-thirds vote requirement, and to get the state to provide at least some help with financing school construction. Several North Idaho lawmakers put the issue at the top of their priority lists.
U.S. Highway 95. The state’s only north-south route remains a dangerous, twisting, two-lane road, despite improvements to some of the worst segments in recent years. Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, is proposing legislation this year to raise $36 million a year for eight years through a temporary 1-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase and hike in car registration fees. If combined with regular road-fixing money the state spends each year on Highway 95, that should be enough to pack 20 years’ worth of repairs and improvements into the next eight years.
Riggs is adding safety-oriented improvements to three other routes across the state to his bill, in hopes of gaining statewide support. His proposal comes after Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, got an ambitious bonding program to improve Highway 95 through the House last year, but lost it by one vote in a Senate committee.
Prisons. Idaho’s prisons are overflowing, and the state is spending millions to house inmates out of state and in county jails. But a close look at the prison population shows more than three-quarters of those sent to prison in the past year were nonviolent offenders, and a significant number are serving time for such crimes as simple drug possession, driving without a valid license, writing bad checks or driving drunk.
Gov. Phil Batt is proposing reforms aimed at punishing some nonviolent offenders in less-expensive ways, and speeding up their progress through the prison and parole system. A Boise legislator, Sen. Sheila Sorensen, is proposing doing away with parole, in favor of turning the offenders loose when they’ve served the fixed portion of their sentence.
A new state study shows Idaho could save money by using more electronic monitoring, house arrest and other alternatives to prison for offenders who aren’t dangerous. But a Legislature that prides itself on being tough on crime may find such reforms politically difficult in an election year.
At the same time, Idaho is embarking on its first private prison project, with construction scheduled to start while the lawmakers are in town. The project has been controversial and has raised a host of new issues for the Legislature to address.
State employee pay. Fearful lawmakers last year provided no money for raises for state employees, figuring floods would eat up any extra money. It didn’t happen.
Legislative leaders then rebuffed Gov. Batt’s offer to call a special session of the Legislature to grant pay raises. He had recommended state workers get a 2 percent hike.
Now the Idaho Public Employees Association is calling for a 10 percent raise this year, which would cost the state about $41 million. The state Personnel Commission, citing problems attracting qualified applicants, is recommending a 7.7 percent pay hike.
But key lawmakers, including budget committee vice chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, say something in the 2 to 5 percent range is more likely.
Sen. Clyde Boatright, R-Rathdrum, said, “We need to go back now and do something for those state employees who did not get a raise.”
Adds Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden, “We’ve gone through two cycles now. We’re out of excuses.”
Those are just a few of the top issues. Lawmakers also will take on electrical deregulation, charter schools, liquor license rules and property rights.
They’ll consider a plan to grant costly tax credits to parents who don’t send their children to public schools, and a property-rights bill that could crimp cities in planning and zoning decisions.
Attorney General Al Lance will propose a new system to lock up sexual predators even after they’ve served their prison time, and a plan to make information on registered sex offenders widely available.
Lawmakers will consider allowing the state endowment fund to be invested in the stock market, and ponder how much of the cost of higher education should fall on students through fees.
Gov. Phil Batt is hinting he’ll propose ending Idaho’s distinction as one of only nine states that puts no state money into Head Start, leading to huge waiting lists across the state and only a small percentage of needy children getting into the program.
The state budget may not be as tight as it was the past two years, which saw mid-year budget cuts. But state agencies’ budget requests are about $80 million over the expected revenue.
Said Weatherby: “It could be one of the more interesting sessions we’ve had in a number of years.”