BOISE (AP) — From spent nuclear fuel to Medicaid expansion to cutting state regulations, Idaho had some big changes in 2019.
Idaho officials reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Energy to allow research quantities of spent nuclear fuel into the state after years of blocking such shipments.
Voter-approved Medicaid expansion survived an Idaho Supreme Court challenge and lawmaker antipathy.
Republican Gov. Brad Little cut or simplified what he says are 75 percent of state regulations in his first year in office.
Also among the top headlines were a U.S. appeals court ruling ordering the state to give a transgender inmate gender confirmation surgery, a court fight over releasing the source of Idaho’s execution drugs and notable salmon and steelhead runs crashing.
Only 17 endangered sockeye salmon returned to central Idaho in 2019, and steelhead were so scarce that Idaho officials closed fishing for them on the popular Clearwater River. Officials said all the steelhead that did make it back were needed for broodstock for hatchery operations.
Idaho granted a conditional waiver to the U.S. Energy Department that could allow some spent nuclear fuel into the state. The agreement announced in November by Little and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, both Republicans, means the Idaho National Laboratory in Butte County could receive about 100 pounds of spent fuel for experiments as part of a U.S. strategy to expand nuclear power and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The waiver requires the Energy Department to first prove it can process 900,000 gallons of high-level radioactive liquid waste that sits above a giant Idaho aquifer, which supplies water to farms and cities.
The Idaho Department of Correction has long fought to keep the source of its execution drugs secret. But in March, 4th District Judge Lynn Norton said prison officials had to release several execution-related documents, including some that would reveal where the state obtained the lethal injection drugs used in its last execution.
The ruling came in a public records lawsuit filed by University of Idaho professor Aliza Cover, who studies how the public interacts with the death penalty.
Prison officials have long said they fear they won’t be able to obtain the drugs needed for future executions if their potential sources believe they could be exposed. They have appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.
The Idaho Press Club sued Ada County on behalf of its members after four Boise-area journalists said the county wrongly denied, over-redacted or otherwise mishandled their public records requests. After hearing the evidence and reviewing the documents, 4th District Judge Deborah Bail issued a ruling scolding the county for doing nearly the opposite of what the Idaho Public Records Act required.
Bail said the county delayed responding, used unsupportable interpretations of privilege in deciding what material to withhold, and acted frivolously in denying the public records requests. Ada County has since turned over the requested records to the journalists.
Idaho voters passed Medicaid expansion in 2018, and it was still a dominant issue in 2019. The state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the law’s constitutionality in February.
Lawmakers then added restrictions requiring five waivers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Waivers are required when states want to deviate from Medicaid rules. U.S. officials have yet to approve any of the waivers, but enrollment began and some 50,000 Idaho residents had signed up through late December. Coverage starts Jan. 1.
The Idaho Legislature adjourned without passing a bill to keep alive thousands of administrative rules, giving Little a rare opportunity and sweeping authority to rewrite rules he didn’t think were worth keeping or let them expire.
By the time he was done, he said he had cut or simplified 75 percent of the administrative rules and boasted he had made Idaho the least-regulated state in the U.S.
Gov. Little in April issued his first vetoes involving legislation that would have dramatically toughened the requirements to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot. The legislation was seen as a reaction to the Medicaid expansion that voters passed in November 2018 with 61 percent of the vote, following years of inaction by the Legislature. Little said he vetoed the legislation amid concerns a federal judge would rule such a law unconstitutional and then define Idaho’s initiative process.
Idaho lawmakers were caught in the turmoil of hemp being a big cash crop for farmers amid concerns it could be used as a cover for illegal marijuana. They tried but failed to produce legislation by the time the session was over in April.
In November, Little issued an executive order aligning Idaho law enforcement activities with federal law to allow the transport of hemp across the state.