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News >  ID Government

Longtime Idaho Senate majority leader reflects on just-concluded legislative session

UPDATED: Thu., March 30, 2017

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, left pays tribute to Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, center, after the Idaho Senate adjourned for the year on March 29, 2017. Davis, who has served in the Senate for 19 years and as its majority leader for the past 15 years, was confirmed Thursday as the next U.S. Attorney for Idaho. (Katherine Jones / AP)
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, left pays tribute to Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, center, after the Idaho Senate adjourned for the year on March 29, 2017. Davis, who has served in the Senate for 19 years and as its majority leader for the past 15 years, was confirmed Thursday as the next U.S. Attorney for Idaho. (Katherine Jones / AP)

BOISE – Longtime Idaho Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, who is widely rumored to be the leading candidate to be Idaho’s new U.S. Attorney, said Thursday that funding for improved teacher pay is among the top accomplishments of the Idaho Legislature this year.

“That’s one of the best things we’ve done,” said Davis. “I’m really proud that this Legislature not just made the commitment, but they’ve met that commitment.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, agreed, adding, “And this was the hard year … it cost the most.”

The third-year installment on the school improvement plan included a $62 million allocation that lawmakers approved for the state’s new teacher career ladder next year. And it came largely without controversy this year.

Instead, Davis said, lawmakers took the approach, “This is the plan, this is the commitment that we made, and we’ve determined to ride it out.”

Davis has had no comment on the possibility that President Trump could appoint him as Idaho’s next U.S. attorney. The previous U.S. attorney, Wendy Olson, stepped down on Feb. 24 and joined a Boise law firm, to make way for a new GOP appointee.

Davis, R-Idaho Falls, is a 10-term senator and has been the Senate’s majority leader since 2002. That means he controls the Senate calendar and pace of business, a key role. An attorney, he’s also become the Senate’s de facto parliamentarian and expert on even the most obscure of legislative rules.

On the legislative session’s final day, Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, told senators he wanted to address the “elephant in the room,” offering his thanks to Davis for years of leadership that maintained “a wonderful decorum here in the Senate.”

“No one’s irreplaceable, but there’s always an exception to the rule, and he is truly the exception to every rule that I’ve ever heard,” Martin said.

On Thursday, Davis and Bedke were in the Capitol to take part in Gov. Butch Otter’s planned news conference responding to the session, but Otter had to cancel due to laryngitis that left him unable to speak. That session was rescheduled for Monday.

Davis and Bedke offered these reflections on the just-concluded session:

TRANSPORTATION: On the big transportation bill that passed in the session’s final days, including $300 million in bonding and a new $15 million annual diversion from the state’s general fund, Davis said he isn’t a fan of the money coming out of the general fund. “But I either get to vote yes or no. What was important to me and most on the Senate floor was I-84 and funding to find a solution for that stretch of highway – it was at least as important to the House that at least there be a token expression of support from the general fund.” Bedke said, “That was the price of admission, was going to the general fund.”

GROCERY TAX REPEAL: Davis said, “I voted against it, and I have supported it in the past. For me, it wasn’t the right time. We need to get ourselves comfortably into the last investments on the education budget.” Removing Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax from groceries, while eliminating Idaho’s current grocery tax credit from state income tax returns, will cost the state budget an estimated $79 million a year. Bedke said in his “perfect world,” Idaho would eliminate nearly all the exemptions from its sales tax and drop the rate to close to 4 percent. “Then we have a low rate and a very broad base that is going to be predictable going forward, to fund things like education, health and welfare, and even, in a surplus year, transportation.”

That bill is awaiting action from Gov. Butch Otter, who has hinted he may veto it.

FAITH HEALING: Davis said, “That’s a disappointment to me, that we didn’t find a solution. That’s a personal disappointment.” Idaho lawmakers haven’t reached agreement on whether or how to change the state’s current religious exemptions from civil or criminal charges for parents who deny a child medical care, and the child dies.

LIQUOR LICENSE REFORM: Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, introduced a sweeping reform proposal late in the session, but it didn’t get a hearing. Davis, a member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the issue is not seen as pressing in his part of the state, but said, “The Legislature should do something – the system we have today isn’t the right system, so we’ve got to find a better way to do it.”

STATE SAVINGS: Davis said he’s glad Idaho’s continuing to build up the state’s rainy-day accounts. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to invest in those budget reserves. We need ‘em, in my opinion we just need ‘em.” During the recession, “We were grateful we had every dime,” he said. “Those were the hardest years I served. Those cuts, they were just hard.” He added that some said the state should raise taxes then, but his response was, “Oh, really? On the very people who are suffering?”

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