BOISE — The silver lining in the snow-laden storm clouds in Idaho this past winter might be that the weather’s crippling impact on state roads got the Legislature to find its wallet for major infrastructure repair and reconstruction.
That plan for roads and bridges, along with a repeal of the sales tax on grocery food, were the standout accomplishments of the session. But only one may live on after lawmakers head for home: Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, departing from his customary mid-session reticence, weighed in to oppose the grocery tax repeal before lawmakers voted on it. His veto is widely expected.
An 80-day legislative session went three days past its predicted end date as lawmakers struggled in the final weeks to reach agreement on rival tax cut measures and the highway finance plan. The last big lift was the roads bill, which passed both houses Tuesday.
Aside from those efforts, lawmakers slogged through a quirky, meandering session dogged by uncertainty over how the power shift in Washington, D.C., would affect state issues such as health care, and insidious GOP infighting in the House that poisoned relationships and repeatedly brought proceedings to a dead stop.
The session began with controversy and conflict in the House when a north Idaho lawmaker, frequently at odds with House leadership, was stripped of her committees for making disparaging remarks about how female colleagues advance in seniority. The lawmaker apologized and eventually was reinstated, but tension remained between the House GOP majority leadership and a group of mostly freshmen, far-right lawmakers who stood by her.
Heading into extra innings, the Legislature had passed 241 of 530 bills introduced this year, with another 65 passed by one house and pending in the other, and 22 bills rejected. It was in many ways a session of half measures, or none at all.
The big four: Roads, taxes, schools, health care
Roads and bridges: The $320 million package cruised the Capitol in various forms for more than a month before lawmakers finally gave it the green light. Its chances seemed to improve almost daily as winter’s apparent toll worsened. All but $20 million from state general fund revenues will be borrowed against future federal road payments, the biggest share going to rebuilding the congested, accident-plagued stretch of Interstate 84 through Canyon County.
Cutting taxes: The House moved an income tax cut plan before January was over. That bill sat untouched in the Senate for more than a month before it was scooped up for a complete makeover, returning to the agenda as the grocery tax repeal. Both houses readily adopted the repeal in spite of the governor’s tacit promise of a veto. But House leaders, holding out hope to send the governor a tax cut he could support, resurrected their income tax plan as a bolt-on to another tax bill and sent it back to the Senate, which rejected that second bill Wednesday morning. That leaves only the grocery tax repeal heading to the governor’s desk.
Education: Otter opened the 2017 session with a State of the State address that again made education funding his top priority, in particular, the third year of a five-year plan to boost teacher salaries. And education budgets, including $1.7 billion for K-12 schools, mostly sailed through both Houses.
But money wasn’t the only education issue they addressed. Lawmakers stripped references to climate change from school science standards — at least temporarily, pending another review next year. A plan for a pilot program to help rural schools collaborate and share resources passed the House but went nowhere in the Senate.
Health care: With the change of administrations in Washington, the Legislature punted on any significant action to help Idaho’s poor and uninsured get health care via Obamacare-enabled Medicaid expansion.
Session standouts or new this year
Environment/resources: The Legislature approved new regulations for the state’s fledgling oil and gas industry that protects property owners, encourages competition and provides for greater transparency. It approved the first fee increase for hunting and fishing licenses since 2004 — a 20 percent increase that includes a “price lock” that allows those who buy licenses every year to avoid the increase.
Idaho National Lab: Authorization for the state Board of Education and Building Authority to finance the $90 million construction of a cybersecurity research facility and advanced supercomputer center at University Place in Idaho Falls. The buildings’ fate was uncertain until the very end of the session. The resolution authorizing the $90 million in state bonds to finance the construction was held hostage to be used as leverage by the House in negotiations with the Senate over taxes and transportation funding. Ultimately, little opposition materialized and the bills sailed through their House vote.
Civil asset forfeiture: Changed the law to require authorities to demonstrate a direct link between drug-related criminal activity and property seized. Existing law allowed police to seize someone’s cash or cars if authorities believe the property is tied to a crime, and a person need not be charged with a crime to have property seized.
Fireworks: Rejected a proposed ban on the retail sale of aerial fireworks to stop fires like the one that scorched more than 57,000 acres in last summer’s Henry’s Creek Fire in Bonneville County.
Courts and lawyers: In response to a state Supreme Court ruling last year, approved retaining the current practice of judicial discretion for awarding attorney fees in civil proceedings, rather than moving to a blanket “loser-pay” system.
New takes on perennial favorites
Abortion: Repealed, pursuant to a court settlement, Idaho’s invalidated ban on the prescription of abortion-inducing drugs via telemedicine.
Civil rights: The “Add the Words” effort to add LGBT protections to state civil rights law, which has drawn big protests and arrests for civil disobedience in previous years, got little public discussion and no legislative attention this year.
Constitutional convention: Rejected a proposal that would have added Idaho to the list of states that have called for a Constitutional Convention seeking a balanced budget amendment.
Criminal justice: Approved a statewide standard for retaining physical evidence in sexual assault investigations — 55 years, or until the sentence is fulfilled. The bill followed news reports that revealed that sometimes evidence collected in police rape kits is never sent for analysis and that the state does not have uniform rules for handling such evidence.
Gambling: A move to ban video gaming machines at tribal casinos died in House committee by one vote. Opponents said the proposed ban violated state law and was outside the scope of what was authorized in a 2002 voter initiative.
Guns: Lawmakers extended Idaho’s concealed weapon privileges to active military but let die a proposal to revise laws on self-defense shootings, which gun rights advocates said was unnecessary. A measure to expand the list of felony convictions that bar a person from owning a gun was pulled back for being too broad.
Voting: Killed a plan to limit the timing of early voting statewide, from three weeks to one week before an election.
Smaller stuff: Dog racing, delivery robots, faster passing
Other transportation measures: A $75 annual surcharge on gas hybrid vehicles imposed two years ago was repealed. It remains in effect for plug-in hybrid vehicles.
Approved a change to traffic law to let motorists drive up to 15 mph over the speed limit when passing on two-lane state roads, where the posted limit is 55 mph or greater. Killed a proposal to ban police officers from arbitrarily stopping motorcyclists. Opponents said the prohibition should apply to all citizens, not just bikers.
Dog racing: Created new exceptions from the state’s dog-racing ban for non-betting exhibition races at county fair side shows, sled-dog racing and training.