Idaho lawmakers slashed spending, assailed federal initiatives
BOISE – Idaho lawmakers’ session this year was one of slash and bash – slashing deeply into state budgets for everything from schools to health care while passing measure after measure railing at the federal government for overreaching or overspending.
It’s not that lawmakers were blaming the feds for their state’s budget woes – in fact, it was hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money that kept last year’s Idaho state budget from being as bloody as this year’s.
Instead, a convergence of factors – including a looming, high-stakes state election and passage of sweeping national health care reforms backed by national Democrats but opposed by Idaho’s entire congressional delegation – left Idaho lawmakers feeling helpless.
“It’s a source of frustration and it’s spilling over into our Capitol,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. “Idaho is experiencing a significant national frustration with the folks in Washington, D.C., who just don’t seem to get it.”
Adding to that sense of helplessness: After adopting state tax revenue projections sharply below those forecast by state economists, Idaho lawmakers had little choice but to slash into state budgets – or raise taxes, which they adamantly refused to consider.
Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus, said, “It takes absolutely no political courage for any Idaho politician to bash the federal government. There is no downside to that, apparently, even though we are heavily dependent on the federal government in many respects.”
Every seat in Idaho’s Legislature is up for election this year, as is every state elective office, so voters will soon have their chance to weigh in. The primary election is May 25.
Idaho lawmakers addressed other issues too, but one of the most prominent went nowhere: the widely backed push to ban texting while driving. Lawmakers from both parties and both houses worked on the legislation, youngsters from North Idaho signed petitions, teens flocked to testify in favor of the bill at hours-long hearings – but the bill died in a tussle between the House and Senate on the final night of the session, amid dispute over whether violations should be infractions or misdemeanors.
Here’s a look at some of the issues Idaho lawmakers addressed this year:
•Health care: The Legislature voted to ban enforcement of any federal requirement that all Idahoans or businesses purchase health insurance, and to sue to block such requirements. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden joined a dozen other states in suing; the case is pending in federal court in Florida. Also enacted was a new law, which Gov. Butch Otter allowed to take effect without his signature, allowing any licensed health care provider to refuse, on conscience grounds, to provide any treatment or medication related to abortion, emergency contraception or end-of-life care.
•School funding: Historic cuts in public school funding will slash $128.5 million from Idaho’s K-12 public schools next year; teachers and school administrators will face pay cuts; and school districts were given permission to reopen negotiated teacher contracts if necessary to cut further. Local school districts were given unprecedented flexibility to decide where to make the cuts. College and university funding also took big hits, as did every area of the state budget.
•Taxes: Not only did lawmakers resist any effort to increase taxes, legislation was introduced – though not passed – to cut the state’s individual and corporate income tax rates by a third over the next 10 years. Efforts to repeal existing tax breaks were rebuffed, as was a Senate-backed bid to move toward imposing sales taxes on online sales.
•Law enforcement: Lawmakers urged Benewah County and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to reopen talks on cross-deputization, and the two sides complied – just in time to stave off legislation proposed by the tribe that would’ve forced the issue. Statewide, law enforcement, drug treatment and prison programs suffered budget cuts like other agencies; a hefty new surcharge on all convictions for the next three years will help keep courts operating.
•Environment: Lawmakers moved to trim the ability of local public health districts to block development due to concerns about sewage capacity; a Panhandle Health District rule limiting expansion of homes on noncompliant septic systems to 10 percent of square footage was among the casualties. Now, those expansions can go forward as long as they don’t add bedrooms. Also, budget cuts hit the state Department of Environmental Quality, which suspended a statewide water quality monitoring program for a second straight year.
•Elections: Idahoans now will have to show a photo ID at the polls to vote, but those who don’t have one can sign an affidavit, under compromise legislation. Political parties lost a funding source, with the removal of a tax-return check-off to benefit parties, and voters in November will decide on three state constitutional amendments, allowing indebtedness without a vote for public airports and hospitals and municipal power systems.
•Gambling: A long-standing law imposing criminal penalties on prosecutors or law enforcement if they don’t go after all instances of gambling – including small-scale poker games and office pools – was wiped off the books.
•Pension padding: Lawmakers voted to outlaw purchases of additional retirement service as bonuses for certain state employees, after the Otter administration paid more than $72,000 for such a bonus for the retiring state director of human resources. The administration, without admitting any wrongdoing, backed the law.
•Pay raises: While state workers won’t get pay increases this year and many will face furloughs or even layoffs, lawmakers voted to set salaries for the state’s top elected officials for the next four years that will cut their pay 4 percent next year, restore it to this year’s level the year after, and then give raises the next two years. The governor’s salary would go up 3 percent over the four years; the lieutenant governor’s 17 percent; and most top officials’ pay would increase 8 percent.