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Eye on Boise: New faces in the Idaho Legislature

Chief Election Judge Lorna Wasson works at St. Thomas Center in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Chief Election Judge Lorna Wasson works at St. Thomas Center in Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Betsy Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – Though just two seats in the Idaho Legislature flipped from one party to the other in last week’s election, there will be lots more new faces than that when the Legislature convenes in January.

Statewide, there will be 17 new faces in the Legislature, thanks to general election decisions, results of the May primary election, and/or retirements of incumbents. In addition, four former lawmakers are returning to the Statehouse after absences of at least two years; and three current House members are moving across the rotunda to the Senate.

All told, that means 24 of the 105 seats in the Legislature – nearly a quarter – will have different occupants in January than they do now.

House Speaker Scott Bedke said, “Without term limits, we’ve turned the Legislature over deeply.”

I looked back five years to 2016, and counted 56 lawmakers who were serving in 2016 but won’t occupy those seats in January, including 14 senators and 42 House members. Two of those 2016 House members will be in the Senate in January. But still, about half the Legislature is turning over in five years.

This year, the three House members who are moving to the Senate are Reps. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise; Christy Zito, R-Hammett; and Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg.

The four former lawmakers who are returning are newly reelected Reps. Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello; Ron Nate, R-Rexburg; and Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, all three of whom retook the seats they lost two years ago; and James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, who served from 2006 to 2010 and was House assistant minority leader.

Bedke said the 17 legislative newcomers will need to be “brought up to speed,” but he thought that would be an easy task. “These are quick studies,” he said. “They’ve been successful in the other areas of life they’ve entered.”

The new faces include newly elected Sens. Peter Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene; Ali Rabe, D-Boise; and Kevin Cook, R-Idaho Falls. The new House members are newly elected Reps. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden; Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow; Charlie Shepherd, R-Riggins; Julie Yamamoto, R-Caldwell; Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa; Ben Adams, R-Nampa; Codi Galloway, R-Boise; Colin Nash, D-Boise; Chris Mathias, D-Boise; Greg Ferch, R-Boise; Matthew Bundy, R-Mountain Home; David Cannon, R-Blackfoot; Marco Erickson, R-Idaho Falls; and Jon Weber, R-Rexburg.

This year’s turnover is slightly below that of two years ago, when by my count, there were 24 new faces – five in the Senate and 19 in the House – in addition to two House members switching to the Senate, for a total of 26.

Revenues beat forecasts again

Idaho’s state tax revenues beat forecasts again in October, coming in 6.7% higher than predicted, or $21.3 million ahead. It was the fourth straight month – meaning every month since the new fiscal year began July 1 – that state general fund revenues exceeded projections, by tens of millions each month. For the fiscal year to date, revenues are now 9.3%, or $123.8 million, ahead of forecasts; and 16.8% higher than last year at this time.

“Idaho’s labor market was notably resilient midyear even as the pandemic reached into the state,” state economists Derek Santos and Greg Piepmeyer wrote in the monthly General Fund Revenue Report.

Individual and corporate income taxes and sales taxes all exceeded predictions. The state also collected another $11.2 million in sales taxes on online sales, which are being deposited into a “tax relief fund” in which the money just accumulates.

According to the monthly General Fund Budget Monitor from the Legislature’s joint budget committee, if current trends hold, Idaho will end the fiscal year with a $557.9 million surplus, $503 million more than lawmakers anticipated when they finished setting the state budget in March.

That’s a result of the combination of stronger than expected revenues; reversions including $60.3 million from Medicaid because the CARES Act bumped up the federal share of the funding for the state-federal program during the pandemic; and holdbacks Gov. Brad Little imposed on the state budget on July 1 of 5%, or nearly $200 million, in anticipation of the COVID-19 pandemic crimping state revenues.

12 House members to get offices

Twelve more House members will get offices on the first floor of the Capitol for the coming 2021 legislative session, Bedke told the Legislative Council on Friday. This is separate from the court fight between the Legislature and state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth over the first-floor space in the Capitol where she now has many of her staff offices, which the House wants to convert into offices for House members. Both sides have been fighting in court over that; the Idaho Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case Jan. 13.

The 12 new office spaces are available because the Legislative Audits Division, which already is under the Legislature’s control, has moved out of the first floor of the Capitol to office space across the street, Bedke said. All senators already have private offices in the Capitol, but House members who aren’t committee chairs or in leadership have just cubicle space in the Capitol basement. Bedke said the new offices will be distributed based on seniority.

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