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Accomplishments, or not, of Idaho legislative session

BOISE – By the end of Idaho’s legislative session, lawmakers had reversed years of bitter dissension over school reform and passed a $125 million, five-year plan to boost teacher pay; increased funding for the state’s hard-hit schools; and raised the gas tax for the first time since 1996.

But the session also ended without any action to provide options for Idahoans who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to get subsidized insurance on the state’s health insurance exchange, turning away millions in federal funds for that purpose. There was no action on ethics or contracting reform; civil rights protections for gays; or major tax changes – including proposals taxing online sales and the repeal of the sales tax on groceries.

And the session ended with a House committee, by one vote, killing critical legislation required to keep Idaho’s child support enforcement system in line with federal laws, putting in jeopardy the entire system that collects $205 million a year in child support for Idaho children. Committee members decried the federal government telling Idaho what to do and said they worried about the state’s sovereignty. That’s now likely to force lawmakers back to town for a special session.

Gov. Butch Otter said he gives the session a grade of “incomplete.”

“There’s some unfinished business and a little disappointment,” he said. “But mostly what I see is a lot of real, tangible and lasting progress for the citizens of Idaho.”

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, called the defeat of the child support bill “a high point in the session.” In a legislative update she posted online, she wrote, “Nine committee members stood firm when being bullied and bribed into accepting this bill.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, called the session “monumental.” “But it wasn’t all smooth sailing,” he added.

Here’s some of what lawmakers did, and didn’t, accomplish in Boise this session:

EDUCATION: Idaho’s K-12 public schools will see a 7.4 percent increase in state funding next year, matching Otter’s recommendation and exceeding state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s call for a 6.4 percent increase. That includes $33.5 million to fully fund the first year of the new five-year teacher pay plan, which gives all teachers raises if they meet performance standards. Lawmakers also approved creation of a new STEM Action Center under the governor’s office to coordinate education and industry efforts on science, technology, engineering and math. And they required future Idaho high school graduates to pass the same civics test immigrants must pass to become citizens. An eighth-grader’s five-year lobbying effort to name the Idaho giant salamander the official state amphibian finally succeeded.

TRANSPORTATION: A last-minute, $95 million compromise deal reached on the session’s final day will raise Idaho’s gas tax by 7 cents, from 25 cents a gallon to 32 cents a gallon, on July 1. It also will increase vehicle registration fees and impose new annual fees on electric and hybrid vehicles. The new revenue will go toward Idaho’s $262 million annual shortfall in road and bridge maintenance.

HEALTH CARE: A new $1.7 million mental health crisis center in North Idaho won approval, despite “no” votes from four North Idaho lawmakers. The state’s first center opened last year in Idaho Falls; it’s designed to keep people in crisis from being jailed. Both houses passed legislation to allow parents of children with severe epilepsy to use a cannabis extract to treat the kids’ seizures, but Otter vetoed the bill. Otter’s proposals to accept Medicaid expansion funds from the federal government but use them largely to purchase private insurance for needy Idahoans never were introduced. Long-sought legislation to restrict children and teens from using artificial tanning beds passed; teens will need their parents’ permission.

GAMBLING: Legislation passed both houses to repeal the 2013 law that led to slot machine-like “instant racing” machines being installed at three locations, including the Greyhound Park Event Center in Post Falls, but Otter vetoed the bill. However, the legality of his veto is in question, as he didn’t deliver it to lawmakers within the required five days.

LOCAL CONTROL: Lawmakers passed legislation to override local regulations of ride-sharing companies like Uber; an Uber lobbyist proposed the bill, which Boise, Coeur d’Alene and the Association of Idaho Cities opposed. Otter allowed it to become law without his signature. Lawmakers also prohibited local governments from using the power of eminent domain for trails or greenways unless they’re adjacent to roads. A bill to ban local regulation of knives, including in schools, passed the Senate but died in a House committee.

TAXES: The House passed a sweeping bill to lower top income tax rates, remove the sales tax from groceries and eliminate the grocery tax credit, and raise the gas tax; the bill died without a vote in the Senate. The House also passed legislation to raise the existing grocery tax credit by $10 next year; it died without a hearing in the Senate. Both houses agreed to remove the sales tax from prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses. A tax credit for donations to schools, libraries and museums was extended. Legislation to exempt road materials from sales taxes, at a cost of $20 million a year to the state, failed to pass. Digital streaming services were exempted from the state’s sales tax.

CIVIL RIGHTS: After a long, emotional hearing on legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act, which would prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on those bases, the bill died on a party-line vote in a House committee. Backers had sought a hearing on the bill each year for the past 10; this was the first time it got one. A nonbinding memorial calling for impeachment of federal judges who rule in favor of same-sex marriage passed the House but died without a hearing in the Senate. Long-sought anti-bullying legislation passed, requiring training for school officials and intervention when children are bullied.

ABORTION: Controversial legislation placing new restrictions on abortions that are performed by medication, rather than by surgery, passed both houses and Otter signed it into law.

ELECTIONS: Idaho now has a presidential primary set for the second Tuesday in March in presidential election years, in addition to its May primary election. The additional election will cost an estimated $2 million.

ETHICS AND TRANSPARENCY: Legislation passed to significantly increase fines for violations of the Idaho Open Meeting Law. In addition, the Open Meeting Law, the Public Records Law and the Ethics in Government Law will be joined in a new title of state law headed “Transparent and Ethical Government.” That will make those statutes more high-profile and easier to find; the move came on the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Public Records Law in 1990. Idaho still lacks any requirements for personal financial disclosure for elected officials and lacks “revolving door” laws preventing officials from moving directly to lobbying; no such proposals were introduced this year.

RELIGION: A Hindu prayer opened a session of the Idaho Senate for the first time; three senators boycotted it, including Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, who called Hinduism “a false religion with false gods.” Thirteen lawmakers attended a Statehouse luncheon hosted by Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, at which a pastor from Chattaroy warned that Muslims are trying to infiltrate and influence conservative communities in the West, partly by “dumping” refugees; the claims drew outrage from many Idaho religious and human rights leaders.

GUNS: Lawmakers rejected a bill to eliminate the state’s concealed-weapon permit laws, and instead passed legislation revamping the existing law, including clarifying that no permits are needed outside city limits. They considered doing away with an exemption from permits for elected officials, but decided not to.

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