Here’s my full Sunday story on this year’s legislative session, including North Idaho lawmakers’ and legislative leaders’ reflections on what did and didn’t get accomplished.
BOISE – Idaho lawmakers addressed an array of long-festering issues in the legislative session they wrapped up Friday, from a constitutionally deficient public defense system to firefighters’ job-related cancer risk to suicide prevention, while also passing anti-abortion and pro-gun bills that GOP incumbents can tout in their primary re-election contests in May.
“I think we made strides on education funding,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “We’ve helped move some higher educational opportunity into North Idaho that will help the five northern counties.” That includes a new four-year computer science degree in Coeur d’Alene through a cooperative program between North Idaho College and the University of Idaho and expansion of career-technical education classes in high schools statewide.
“In many ways I think it’s been a successful session for my district and North Idaho, and I think for the state as well,” Keough said.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “This has been a workhorse session. If you’re a fireman, it’s been pretty darn good. If you’re a state employee, it hasn’t been bad. If you’re a water user, it’s arguably a turning point in our history.”
Senate GOP leader Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “We accomplished some great things this session, when you look at what we did for education.” He noted a new push for computer science and STEM education and an early-reading initiative.
Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls, said, “I liked the passing of the gun bill, the ultrasound option for women, the bill against harvesting fetal tissue. … I was hoping to come to something for helping people in the gap, too.”
That’s Idaho’s health care gap – the session’s biggest long-festering issue that didn’t see any resolution this year, but did see more interest and attention than lawmakers have previously been willing to give it. With 78,000 Idahoans falling into the gap, because they make too little to qualify for subsidized insurance through the state health insurance exchange, but too much to qualify for Medicaid, many lawmakers hoped to offer solutions this year, but the effort fell short in the session’s final days.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician who’s pushed hard all year to get lawmakers to consider the coverage gap, said, “This was a win-win for me. I was very happy we got this conversation out there, folks recognizing the need to address this issue. It’s been put off so long. We’re not serving our state by doing that.”
Rep. Eric Redman, R-Athol, said Friday he planned to vote in favor of the Senate-amended health care bill, but after an hour-long, closed-door GOP caucus, he voted against it along with every other House Republican. “We just didn’t have the votes,” Redman said. “I wanted to do something, and I’m told that we can still move forward on it. I’m going to work with leadership to get something accomplished for the gap population.”
Redman said, “I’m opposed to traditional Medicaid expansion because it’s fee-for-service. … But this is a different plan. It’s a patient-centered medical home.”
Redman pushed two bills of his own this year: One aimed at banning Idaho courts from considering foreign or Sharia law in decisions, and another aimed at allowing families in crisis to place their child temporarily with a host family vetted by a nonprofit. The anti-Sharia bill died on the amending order in the House; the other passed the House but died without a hearing in the Senate.
“That is frustrating, of course,” Redman said. “Provided I get elected, I’m going to bring those back next year.”
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said, “There were less tax cuts than I’d like to see. There were some advancements on solid conservative issues. It’s an election year, so it was all kind of safe legislation for the most part.” She cited the permitless concealed-carry bill as an example, which allows Idahoans age 21 or older to carry concealed guns without permits inside city limits.
Scott said she remains dismayed by what she calls a culture of “crony capitalism, special perks for special groups that is unacceptable – I think that it is unacceptable.” She said, “My hope is that more citizens move up and be involved, because you get the government you allow.”
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think it was a very positive session in general. First of all, we moved this conversation (about health coverage) down the road better than we ever thought we could. We got a four-year degree program in computer science in Coeur d’Alene. We got two more crisis centers in the state of Idaho. We have a plan to expand broadband access to schools. … This was a pretty good year.”
Malek, who serves on the Legislature’s joint budget committee, was a key sponsor of the degree program, the crisis centers and the broadband bill.
He also was the sponsor of the measure that changed Idaho’s worker’s compensation law to presume that certain cancers are work-related for firefighters, something Idaho firefighters have been seeking for the past 16 years. The bill passed the Senate twice in recent years but failed in the House; this year, it passed both houses and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Idaho’s 2016 legislative session
- Lawmakers set a budget that reflects a 6.6 percent increase in state general funds over this year’s level; it includes a 7.4 percent increase in public school funding.
- After three years of study and a lawsuit, Idaho is launching a $5.5 million public defense reform program that includes a state commission that will set and enforce standards, plus grants to counties to help them meet the new standards.
- With a suicide rate 46 percent higher than the national average, Idaho launched a new coordinated suicide prevention plan, including ongoing funding for the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, youth programming, a public awareness campaign, training and more.
- The state funded millions in water recharge projects pursuant to a major water rights settlement in southern Idaho.
- GOP-backed bills on social issues from opposition to abortion to gun rights passed and became law, including a new permitless concealed-carry law.
- Education initiatives from a new early-reading push to a statewide computer science education plan all passed.
- Various tax changes, from cutting personal and corporate income taxes to requiring more online retailers to collect and remit Idaho sales tax, didn’t advance this year, but an interim study committee will again examine income tax rates.
- Lawmakers approved merit raises for state employees next year averaging 3 percent, following Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation.
- An urban renewal reform bill passed that allows the option of elections for local urban renewal boards; requires a 60 percent vote for urban renewal funds to be used for public buildings like city halls and libraries; and requires all urban renewal plans to be posted annually.