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Idaho lawmakers wrap up

Tue., March 30, 2010

Session ends after 78 days with cuts, last-minute tussles

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers wrapped up a 78-day legislative session Monday that was marked by deep, unprecedented spending cuts – including big cuts to schools – and strident railing against the federal government.

“I think that people are afraid of what they’re seeing from the federal government,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs. “People expect us to stand up for Idaho’s rights.”

Even into the session’s final hours, which went well into the evening Monday, lawmakers were debating measures designed to send messages to the federal government that Idaho wants more sovereignty, whether it’s about health care reform or guns. They even endorsed two measures calling for amending the U.S. Constitution, both backed by GOP Gov. Butch Otter.

“I think that’s just reflective of society right now,” said state Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. “Most legislatures are reacting in similar fashion, and there’s a huge contingent of the populace that’s fed up with what’s going on in Washington, D.C.”

State Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said he thought it was a successful session, “in the events of trying to decide who has the power in the state of Idaho – is it the federal government or the state of Idaho?”

Idaho lawmakers enacted a dozen bills, resolutions or memorials aimed squarely at standing up to the federal government. State Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said the anti-fed push “reflects the perception of the public mood and the desire to capitalize on it for political gain.”

But the four-term lawmaker and former longtime high school government teacher, who’s retiring this year, dismissed much of that as “political theater” that he said “demeans the process – it’s a way of using the Legislature to make political points.”

Those points might otherwise have been tough to score this year, as lawmakers facing a sharp economic downturn set budgets for next year that are far below this year’s levels, including unprecedented cuts for public schools, colleges and universities, and throughout state government. Every seat in the Legislature, plus every elected state office, is up for election this year; Idaho’s primary election is May 25.

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he proposed even bigger cuts than the 4 percent pay cuts for teachers and 6.5 percent for school administrators that lawmakers enacted. “I don’t believe that teachers, whether they get a 4 percent pay cut or an 8 percent pay cut, are going to be any less effective,” he said, adding, “they might not be happy about it.”

Nonini said he was pleased that lawmakers gave school districts lots of flexibility in how they cope with budget cuts that will total $128.5 million next year. “I wanted to protect good programs that are showing good results,” he said.

The final day of the session ran from early morning until well into the evening, as both houses pushed through dozens of bills.

While they worked, Otter allowed a controversial measure to become law without his signature, SB 1353, which permits any licensed health care provider to refuse, on conscience grounds, to provide any treatment or medication related to abortion, emergency contraception, end-of-life care or stem-cell research. Otter said he was concerned about impacts on patients’ rights and living wills, but was willing to let the bill become law and see how it works.

In last-minute tussles between the two houses, legislation was successfully amended and passed to declare Idaho-made guns exempt from federal regulations including registration, but a measure to ban texting while driving was killed in a final clash, after the House refused to go along with Senate amendments.

State Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, said a series of bills targeting local health districts’ sewage regulations were successful in prodding districts to grant more building permits. “There’s people getting permits today because of what we did this session,” he said proudly.

Sayler reflected on the session by saying, “It’s probably good that I’m getting out of here before I become cynical.”

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