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Austerity, abortion, school reforms mark Idaho legislative session

BOISE – Thousands of Idahoans poured into the state Capitol this year to plead for – of all things – tax increases, rather than cuts in medical care to the state’s most vulnerable.

Thousands more attended protests, walked out of classes to protest cuts to schools, and made turnouts at legislative hearings unprecedented. A statewide survey just before lawmakers convened showed that 75 percent of Idahoans believe budget cuts have affected the quality of children’s education in the state, and 59 percent think Idaho’s not investing enough in higher education.

But this year’s Idaho legislative session ended with significant additional cuts to Medicaid, schools and colleges, no new taxes – not even increased fees on criminal offenders – and an array of ideologically based new laws, from a ban on abortion after 20 weeks to making assisted suicide a felony.

Meanwhile, state parks will bring in corporate sponsors for the first time, a request from school districts to sell ads on school buses was nixed, and lawmakers’ refusal to raise taxes likely will lead to local property tax increases around the state as schools cope with a third straight year of cuts.

“Our members are angry that Idaho would cut the budget before even hearing proposed bills to raise revenue,” said Andrea Shipley, director of the Idaho Community Action Network, a group that advocates for the poor. “The bills did not even get a hearing.”

“Realize how vital these services are to us,” 84-year-old Ruth Greiting, of Sterling, Idaho, told lawmakers during the Medicaid hearings; a traffic accident 28 years ago left her in a wheelchair.

Betty Gardner, a business owner and substitute teacher from Priest River, traveled to Boise to tell lawmakers, “I don’t think public education is an entitlement; I think it’s a duty.”

The outpouring of public input moved some lawmakers to tears. It prompted changes in proposed Medicaid cuts, removing several of the most controversial proposals. It forced multiple rewrites of state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s school reform bills.

But in the end, the budgets were cut. Taxes weren’t raised. And the Legislature’s huge GOP majority – the party holds 81 percent of legislative seats – enforced party discipline by forcing through new laws ranging from allowing primary elections to be closed to anyone other than registered party members to anti-abortion legislation that sets the state up for a potentially costly court fight.

“We balanced our budget – it wasn’t pretty, but we did it,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who played key roles on the joint budget committee and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, where she’s vice chairwoman.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “My email is 100 to 1 against raising taxes – any tax.”

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said lawmakers managed to balance the state budget without even taking up a popular proposal to increase Idaho’s comparatively low cigarette tax.

“The revenues that would have generated were not needed to balance the budget,” he said.

Here are some of the major actions taken by this year’s Legislature:

Budgets: Public schools were cut by $47 million, colleges and universities will have to raise tuition and fees, and $35 million in state funding for specific services was cut from the Medicaid program, which, with lost federal matching funds, means $108 million less statewide. The state Tax Commission was authorized to hire more auditors to collect already due but unpaid state taxes; that averted another $13 million in cuts to schools.

School reform: Luna’s plan to remove most collective bargaining rights from teachers, institute merit pay and shift funds from teacher salaries to technology passed, requiring far-reaching changes in Idaho’s education system. Follow-up bills added emergency clauses to prevent an expected citizen referendum from holding up the laws until the 2012 election.

Taxes: Legislation to raise Idaho’s cigarette tax $1.25 a pack to fund Medicaid and discourage smoking was never allowed a hearing; neither were bills to raise sales or other product taxes, eliminate tax exemptions or move toward taxing online sales.

Elections: Idaho will require voters to register by party for the first time in state history after a successful lawsuit by the Idaho Republican Party overturned the state’s open primary system. The new rules start with the May 2012 primary election, a presidential election year.

Guns: A proposal to allow guns on Idaho college campuses was extensively debated and passed the House before being killed in a Senate committee; all Idaho colleges and the state Board of Education opposed it.

Energy: Amid outcry from eastern Idaho residents who oppose nearby wind turbines, a plan to extend a tax incentive for renewable energy was debated all through the session and a compromise reached, only to be killed on the final day of the session by one vote in the Senate; the incentive will expire in June.

Abortion: Idaho passed legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks on grounds of fetal pain, with no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal deformity or the mother’s mental or psychological health. The bill includes setting up a fund to defend that law in court that could receive donations or state funds.

Dying: Legislation making assisted suicide a felony passed overwhelmingly, even though surrounding states have moved to allow physician-assisted suicide. Seniors’ demands to remove end-of-life care from a new “conscience law” enacted last year, letting medical providers refuse to provide treatments that violate the provider’s conscience, were rebuffed.

Ethics: After Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, faced multiple ethics complaints over his state and federal tax issues and his 1996 timber theft from state school endowment land, the House changed its ethics rules to allow sanctions for “conduct unbecoming a member of the House.” Hart gave up a vice chairmanship and his seat on the House tax committee rather than face ethics sanctions.

Unemployment: Lawmakers agreed to finance the state’s $200 million-plus unemployment debt to the federal government, saving the state’s employers $167 million over the next three years. An effort to cut off unemployed Idahoans from receiving extended federal unemployment benefits on grounds that unemployment is a handout failed despite substantial GOP support.

Killed: Bills to expand Idaho’s anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation, legalize medical marijuana, address penalties for texting while driving, sell the state’s unused governor’s mansion and authorize tribal police to enforce state law all were killed.

Nullification: The House passed legislation seeking to “nullify” the federal health care reform law despite two Idaho attorney general’s opinions warning that it violated both the U.S. and Idaho constitutions and lawmakers’ oath of office; it died in a Senate committee. Both houses then endorsed a compromise measure to bar Idaho from participating in any discretionary parts of the federal law for one year and to decline federal funds.

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