March 29, 1998 in Nation/World

Large Issues Left Unresolved By Legislators

Betsy Z. Russell Erica Curless Contri Staff writer
 

More than 400 bills were passed, but legislators couldn’t provide answers to some of the biggest problems facing the state.

Instead, hours, days and tons of emotion were poured into debates on abortion that marked the three-month legislative session, which wound up last week with a full day of haggling over a final anti-abortion bill.

“I would’ve been better off just going roller-skating or something,” said Rep. Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint, who served on a conference committee that worked on one of the two abortion bills. “I didn’t ask to be put on there, either.”

North Idaho legislators described the session as rushed, contentious, and marked by political posturing.

“It seemed like it was more difficult to get things done this year,” said Rep. Chuck Cuddy, D-Orofino.

Despite many attempts, lawmakers failed to come up with any solutions for Idaho’s crowded and crumbling school buildings or its dangerous north-south highway. No money was found to end Idaho’s distinction as one of just nine states that puts no state funding into Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for needy children. Public school anti-substance abuse programs suffered a 20 percent cut in funding.

Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Batt point proudly to some accomplishments: a cut in unemployment insurance rates that will save Idaho employers $30 million a year; changes to allow the state’s school endowment fund to be invested in the stock market and earn higher returns; a 5 percent pay raise for state employees who got nothing last year.

The Legislature also approved an experiment with heavier truck weights on certain southern Idaho roads; a new system to make the whereabouts of sex offenders widely available; legislation designed to make it harder for youngsters to get tobacco; a “budget stabilization” plan that will force the state to save money in prosperous years; and a limited experiment with charter schools in any school district where someone wants to start such a school.

Here are some of the session’s highlights:

SCHOOL BUILDINGS

Lawmakers OK’d a constitutional amendment allowing the state to guarantee local school bonds. Now, the measure goes on the ballot for voters to have their say.

Though it wouldn’t make school bonds any easier to pass, the change could save taxpayers money by giving every school district in the state a top-notch bond rating.

That means they’d pay lower interest rates when they borrow money to build schools.

Attempts to end Idaho’s distinction as the toughest state in the nation to build a school failed.

Legislation to amend the state’s Constitution to lower the two-thirds supermajority requirement for votes on school bonds died in committee.

Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he was “extremely disappointed.”

Lawmakers also killed several proposals to put some state funds into school buildings, to supplement the money local property taxpayers spend.

House Speaker Mike Simpson, R-Blackfoot, said such plans need to come from the governor, who should build the funding into the budget he or she presents to the Legislature.

PRISONS

Lawmakers changed their traditional tone this year, and began to talk about slowing the growth of Idaho’s skyrocketing prison population.

With prisons bursting after a decade of get-tough lawmaking, Batt proposed a package of reforms, and they won easy approval.

The changes eliminate felony penalties for driving without a valid license; raise the felony level for bad checks to $250; raise the felony grand theft threshhold from $300 to $1,000; and ease parole procedures.

Batt estimates they’ll save the state $10 million a year.

But at the same time that lawmakers talked of slowing prison growth, they passed bills creating 10 new crimes, five of them felonies, and two enhancements on penalties for existing crimes.

The Legislature also trimmed the growth in the state corrections budget by ordering the Corrections Department to bring back hundreds of inmates housed in expensive out-of-state cells.

That was possible because of an unexpected, six-month lag in inmate growth.

Growth is back up to 30 inmates a month. And the state’s first private prison, under construction south of Boise, will cost millions a year starting in 2000.

HIGHWAY 95

Riggs pushed a bill through the Senate to ask voters whether to fund major improvements to Highway 95 and four other routes around the state through an increase in car and truck registration fees.

But the plan died on a close vote in the House.

It brought out some of the fiercest regionalism of the session, with North Idaho legislators complaining that southern roads are wide, safe and buffed while northern routes are winding, narrow and unsafe. Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene, confronted the state Transportation Department over the issue when the department’s budget came up in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Director Dwight Bower soon found himself cornered by influential legislators who wanted to know why certain Highway 95 projects weren’t even on the department’s five-year plan for funding.

Bower pledged that the narrow, accident-prone section of Highway 95 from Bellgrove to Mica, south of Coeur d’Alene, would be the first up for funding if the state gets additional transportation money from the federal government.

As the session ended, that was looking likely.

ABORTION

Though Idaho’s abortion laws are strict, the Legislature passed two bills to further restrict abortion.

The first, HB 576, bans so-called partial-birth abortions, making it a felony for a doctor to perform such a procedure.

The measure was immediately challenged in court as unconstitutional, and a judge has blocked it from taking effect.

Opponents said the legislation’s wording banned most abortions, not just those involving a specific procedure that collapses a fetus’ skull. The second bill, HB 610, requires parental consent for minors to get abortions and makes other changes in Idaho’s abortion laws.

The bill was amended four times, leading to questions about whether the process it underwent was legal. As of Friday, its fate was uncertain.

Anti-abortion groups have vowed to send out 600,000 voter guides focusing on the issue and to make abortion an issue in campaigns across the state.

Every seat in the Legislature is up for election this year, along with statewide offices and congressional posts.

, DataTimes MEMO: Two sidebar appeared with the story:

1. Online

To see a complete list of bills passed and killed, votes, and other information on the legislative session, see the state Legislature’s home page on the Internet at www.state.id.us/legislat/legislat.html.

2. Six ballot issues to face voters this fall

Six ballot issues stemming from the 1998 Legislative session will greet Idaho voters at the November polls. They are:

A proposed constitutional amendment to allow people under guardianship to vote, serve on a jury or hold civil office. Currently, state law doesn’t grant people under guardianship, such as the mentally disabled, these rights.

A proposed constitutional amendment to allow the state to guarantee local school bonds.

A proposed constitutional amendment to clarify limits on state debt and liability. Approval would force the state to publish its intent to create state indebtedness. The amendment also would allow the state to exclude ordinary operating expenses, to be repaid during that fiscal year, from the definition of debt.

An advisory vote on whether the 1994 term limit initiative should remain on the books. Lawmakers said residents need to reconsider the issue since the Supreme Court voided the term limit provisions for Congress. The outcome will only serve as a guide to lawmakers, who would still have to pass legislation repealing or modifying the current law.

Two proposed constitutional amendments that are part of a package to allow the state to invest a portion of the state’s endowment in stocks and have more flexibility.

Residents also will cast their votes on two issues approved by the 1997 Legislature:

A proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the authority to set the salaries of state Supreme Court justices, and Court of Appeals, District Court and Magistrate Court judges. The amendment would delete outdated salaries now listed.

A proposed constitutional amendment to delete outdated salaries and fees listed for statewide elected officials.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

Staff writer Erica Curless contributed to this report.

Two sidebar appeared with the story: 1. Online To see a complete list of bills passed and killed, votes, and other information on the legislative session, see the state Legislature’s home page on the Internet at www.state.id.us/legislat/legislat.html.

2. Six ballot issues to face voters this fall Six ballot issues stemming from the 1998 Legislative session will greet Idaho voters at the November polls. They are: A proposed constitutional amendment to allow people under guardianship to vote, serve on a jury or hold civil office. Currently, state law doesn’t grant people under guardianship, such as the mentally disabled, these rights. A proposed constitutional amendment to allow the state to guarantee local school bonds. A proposed constitutional amendment to clarify limits on state debt and liability. Approval would force the state to publish its intent to create state indebtedness. The amendment also would allow the state to exclude ordinary operating expenses, to be repaid during that fiscal year, from the definition of debt. An advisory vote on whether the 1994 term limit initiative should remain on the books. Lawmakers said residents need to reconsider the issue since the Supreme Court voided the term limit provisions for Congress. The outcome will only serve as a guide to lawmakers, who would still have to pass legislation repealing or modifying the current law. Two proposed constitutional amendments that are part of a package to allow the state to invest a portion of the state’s endowment in stocks and have more flexibility. Residents also will cast their votes on two issues approved by the 1997 Legislature: A proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the authority to set the salaries of state Supreme Court justices, and Court of Appeals, District Court and Magistrate Court judges. The amendment would delete outdated salaries now listed. A proposed constitutional amendment to delete outdated salaries and fees listed for statewide elected officials.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer Staff writer Erica Curless contributed to this report.

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