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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho lawmakers focus on tax cuts, gun rights; leave health care unaddressed for another year

Idaho lawmakers have finished a jam-packed, 80-day legislative session that saw major tax cuts enacted and a $100 million boost to education funding, but also left unaddressed, for the sixth straight year, the state’s health coverage gap that’s leaving up to 62,000 Idahoans without options for care.

“Idaho is in a good position, and we made additional investments in our state this year to enhance that position, whether it’s education funding or having a more positive business climate,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

As is their custom during election years, Idaho lawmakers passed bills promoting gun rights and enacted two controversial anti-abortion measures; every seat in the Legislature is up for election this year. Hundreds of other measures also passed and became law.

“The bills intended to directly benefit people were often dismissed or sent back to committees to die a quiet death, and the bills that aid in re-election for my colleagues took center stage,” complained House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. “It was entirely about politics.”

But majority Republicans – who hold more than 80 percent of the 105 seats in the Legislature – celebrated a session that they said matched their priorities. Here are some of the major issues and how they fared in Idaho’s 2018 legislative session:

TAXES. Three major tax-cut bills passed, including historic reductions in the state’s income tax rates for individuals and corporations. All told, the state general fund will see a net reduction in income tax collections next year of nearly $130 million. In addition, legislation that failed last year to enact an unemployment insurance tax cut that will save Idaho employers $115 million over the next three years won swift and unanimous passage.

HEALTH CARE. Gov. Butch Otter proposed a unique dual-waiver proposal that could have offered coverage for about half of the Idahoans who now fall into the state’s coverage gap, by making them eligible for subsidized private insurance plans through the state insurance exchange. Currently, those Idahoans make too much to qualify for Medicaid, and not enough to qualify for exchange subsidies. To generate the savings to pay for the plan, it also sought to move about 2,800 of the sickest Idahoans now on exchange plans to Medicaid. But the House twice refused to take a vote on the bill.

Lawmakers did pass a bipartisan bill to restore nonemergency dental coverage for about 30,000 current Idaho Medicaid patients; since that benefit was cut during the recession, the state’s Medicaid program has been on the hook for millions in costs as those patients developed infections and landed in emergency rooms for conditions that could have been headed off with a simple filling. Lawmakers also agreed to start three mental health community crisis centers, in Lewiston, the Nampa and Caldwell area, and Pocatello, bringing the total number statewide to seven. The centers, including one in Coeur d’Alene, are being credited with keeping people with mental health issues out of jail and helping them get treatment.

ETHICS AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM. Despite the unanimous recommendations of a legislative interim working group, lawmakers refused to introduce a bill giving Idaho its first personal financial disclosure requirement for elected officials; just two states lack such laws. Two version of a lengthy bill calling for more detailed and more frequent campaign finance disclosure reporting were introduced but didn’t advance. Lawmakers agreed to establish a committee to work on the issue between now and next year’s legislative session.

PRISONS. As Idaho’s prisons swell with inmates and hundreds are being housed at a private prison in Texas, lawmakers approved nearly doubling the budget for county and out-of-state placement for state prison inmates, from $11.5 million this year to $21.2 million next year. Overall, the prisons budget saw a 7.6 percent increase. No new prisons were funded, but a plan to add close to 100 beds at existing state prison facilities was included in the budget.

GUNS. Lawmakers enacted a “stand your ground” law that largely writes into state law policies that already were contained in longstanding case law and jury instructions in Idaho, including that people have no duty to retreat before using deadly force when they feel threatened. The measure also changes some standards that critics said could legally sanction homicides now considered unreasonable. Lawmakers also passed a bill to let retired law enforcement officers who have special concealed-weapon permits carry concealed guns in schools, university dorms and college stadiums, the only places where that’s not now allowed. They rejected legislation to forbid offenders convicted of domestic assault from possessing guns for two years. A school-threats bill passed to broaden Idaho’s school threats law to include threats made via social media and also to add felony penalties if the person making the threat shows up with a deadly weapon to carry it out.

SCIENCE STANDARDS. After three years of controversy, the Legislature approved proposed new, updated science standards for Idaho schools. House members still wanted portions of the standards removed, but senators overruled them, and the standards were adopted.

CIVIL FORFEITURE. Bipartisan reforms to Idaho’s civil forfeiture laws to remove the ability of law enforcement to seize people’s assets and cars even when they’ve not been charged with any crime passed unanimously and were signed into law. Last year, an earlier version of this legislation was vetoed by Gov. Butch Otter.

There was lots more. A controversial, far-reaching revamp of the state’s trespassing laws that was backed by certain large landowners but opposed by Idaho sportsmen and recreationists passed, and Otter allowed it to become law without his signature. Two bills to strengthen the Idaho Open Meeting Law passed, as did one to make additional personnel records public under the state Public Records Law. Lawmakers agreed to let motorists kill an injured animal at the roadside, rather than wait for a law enforcement officer. And they passed Coeur d’Alene Rep. Paul Amador’s bill to add an exemption to Idaho’s obscenity and public indecency laws for nursing mothers.

“I’ve always been more disposed to celebrating what we have – our victories as citizens and as a state – than complaining about what we don’t have or what wasn’t achieved,” Otter said.

Retiring Rep. Eric Redman, R-Athol, said he leaves with mixed feelings, having worked hard on health care during his two terms. “I thought it was a good Idaho plan,” he said of the governor’s bill. “At least we should’ve voted on it.”