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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Tireless’ North Idaho senator caps 22-year career as ‘consummate citizen-legislator’

Longtime Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, is shown in the Senate chamber on March 22, 2018; she is retiring after this year, and is the longest-serving female senator in Idaho history. (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – The longest-serving female state senator in Idaho history closed out her final legislative session with pride in an array of specific accomplishments, but also with a key disappointment.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who’s the executive director of the Associated Logging Contractors in her everyday job, was first elected to represent the state’s northernmost district in the state Senate in 1996. She’s made her mark as a pragmatic fiscal conservative who championed education and the unique needs of her district in Bonner and Boundary counties – and rose to co-chair the Legislature’s most powerful committee.

This year, she notes a disappointment, after she fought hard against a new abortion complications reporting law that requires Idaho doctors to quiz women about an array of health conditions and personal facts and report all the information to the state, where it will be published in an annual report.

The required reporting includes details about any abortions the women have had, other medical conditions they have, including breast cancer and depression, their other children, their race, age, and more.

“It’s a direct violation to the privacy of every woman in the state, and we’re not going to save one baby because of that legislation,” Keough said. “We’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of Idahoans’ tax dollars standing up for a flawed piece of legislation,” after rejecting similar concepts in previous years.

She noted that lawmakers in past years have debated, for example, suggestions that breast cancer is tied to abortion, and roundly rejected such a connection.

“And yet we’ve put that into law,” she said. “More alarming to me is the reporting requirements for doctors and medical providers on women’s health records – that their medical licensing is at risk and they’re subject to fines if they don’t report.”

“That legislation is just astounding and wide-open,” Keough said.

It wasn’t an easy public stance for Keough to take; anti-abortion legislation, regardless of its scope, routinely passes the Idaho Legislature on straight party-line votes, with all Republicans voting in favor. Keough’s arguments helped persuade a half-dozen other Senate Republicans to join her in opposing the bill, but it passed 21-14, and last week, Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law.

Keough’s thoughts on her final legislative session are mostly positive, though.

“Overall I guess I would say that it was a good legislative session, from the respect that our statewide economy overall is growing rapidly, and that’s good for Idahoans that need jobs,” she said. “We still have some challenges in some of the rural areas, but even in the rural areas, those numbers are looking better.”

She counts among her successes this year the state budget that she helps oversee as co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

“I’m most proud of being part of Idaho’s climbing out of a historic recession and setting a sound budget that’s reasonable for the government services that people request,” she said, including such education investments as a $100 million boost in state funding for public schools; improvements in career-technical education; expansion of a North Idaho College and University of Idaho joint computer science degree program; and funding for “some much-needed projects at Priest Lake,” including enhancing the navigability of the Thorofare that links the upper and lower lakes and major improvements to the dam and breakwater.

Keough also cited an increase in the state Lands Department budget that will add 12 new foresters, specifically to work on “Good Neighbor Authority” projects in which the state conducts timber sales on U.S. Forest Service land.

“That’s going to help manage our federal lands and take care of some projects that will reduce wildfire while putting Idahoans to work,” she said.

It also, she said, may help address some of the frustration that’s led some in Idaho to call for a takeover of federal public lands in the state.

“As I reflect on my experience here,” she said, “I’m really humbled that a majority of voters would send me back here for 11 terms. I think the highlights include being able to help constituents cut red tape or communicate with their government – there’ve been some good successes there.”

She also noted that over that time period, she’s been able to help guide state funding into major improvements to U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho. From Lewiston north to the Canadian border, she said, “It’s a lot better highway than it was 22 years ago.”

Keough’s also proud of helping expand the state’s higher education system in North Idaho, including outreach programs from North Idaho College and Lewis-Clark State College in Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry.

“Those were hard to get and sometimes hard to keep,” she said. And the Coeur d’Alene higher education center has expanded to the point that area residents can get bachelor’s, master’s and even some doctoral degrees without leaving town.

Keough has some concerns about the big income tax cuts that lawmakers passed this year.

“There’s an awful lot of uncertainty out there about what happens to the revenue stream because of the tax cuts and whether the growth is sustained,” she said. “I still would have preferred to repeal the grocery tax.”

Keough has endorsed Sagle Republican Jim Woodward, a longtime area resident and small business owner, for her District 1 Senate seat. He faces two other Republicans, Scott Herndon and Danielle Ahrens, in the May GOP primary; Democrat Vera Gadman, of Hope, is also running for the seat.

Gary Moncrief, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University and a longtime observer of the Idaho Legislature, called Keough “the consummate citizen-legislator.”

“She is part of an impressive line of strong women to serve as co-chairs of JFAC, the important budget setting body in the Idaho Legislature,” he said. “She accomplished this while fending off primary challenger after primary challenger over the years. She was tireless in her work for the state and her district, although I am not sure she was always appreciated as such. She will be missed.”