BOISE — By recent standards, the 2020 Idaho legislative session was relatively short. At 75 days it was tied for the fourth-shortest of the past 20 years, far shorter than the 95-day 2019 session, which was dragged out by pitched battles over Medicaid expansion and whether to put more restrictions on the initiative process. The Senate adjourned this year on March 19 and the House on March 20, the target date the Republican leadership set early in the session.
However, the last week or two felt longer, as cases of the coronavirus started to pop up all over Idaho and the Democrats urged their Republican colleagues to wrap things up instead of having hundreds of people at the Capitol during a time when health officials were recommending social distancing.
Eastern Idaho lawmakers or events were in the middle of some of the more significant bills to pass this year. Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, sponsored a bill inspired by the Christopher Tapp case in Idaho Falls to compensate people who are wrongfully convicted of a crime. It is on Gov. Brad Little's desk awaiting his signature or veto. He plans to act on the bills on his desk by March 31, according to the Associated Press. A bill sponsored by Reps. Bryan Zollinger and Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, to set a minimum marriage age of 16 and restrict 16- and 17-year-olds to marrying someone within three years of their age also passed this year and awaits Little's action.
Another bill that Little has already signed to put limits on medical debt collection had its origins in a crusade by Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot. VanderSloot has been pushing the issue publicly for the last year, following an East Idaho News series on the Idaho Falls firm Medical Recovery Services and the law firm Smith, Driscoll and Associates, which does its collection work and employs Zollinger as a lawyer.
Transgender rights ended up being one of the most divisive issues of the session, and eastern Idaho lawmakers were in the thick of it. Ehardt sponsored a bill to ban transgender girls and women from playing on girls and women’s school sports teams, and Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, sponsored one to ban transgender people from changing their sex on their birth certificates to match their gender identities.
Little got the teacher pay raises and hike in early childhood literacy funding he wanted. While the Idaho Content Standards, Idaho's version of Common Core, are still in place despite the objections of most Republicans on the House Education Committee, lawmakers plan to study them in the interim with an eye toward replacing them. However, lawmakers left Boise without addressing some big items, including notably doing something about rising property taxes. And for the second year in a row, they failed to agree on legislation to legalize growing industrial hemp, leaving Idaho and Mississippi the only two states where farmers can’t grow hemp.
No one who follows the Idaho Legislature should have been surprised that transgender rights issues would be heavily debated during the 2020 session. A proposed rule on whether transgender minors should need a doctor’s sign-off to change their birth certificates drew extensive public comment in 2019, mostly from people against letting transgender people, minors or adults, change their birth certificates at all. And Ehardt went public early in the session saying she planned to introduce the sports bill.
However, it might have come as a surprise just how much of the session would be dominated by these debates, or that they would get national attention, with outlets such as the New York Times, Vox and the Huffington Post covering it. Supported by groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Republican lawmakers in states nationwide have been introducing bills this year to ban gender reassignment surgery for transgender minors and to restrict transgender girls and women from playing on school sports teams.
A bill to charge doctors who give minors puberty-blocking hormones or reassignment surgery with a felony was held when, after a four-hour hearing where transgender people, their allies, doctors and lobbyists for civil rights groups. testified passionately against it, committee Chairman Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, declined to schedule a vote on it. Young and Ehardt’s bills, both of which are expected to land the state in court if they become law, made it to Little’s desk in the waning days of the session in mostly party-line votes.
Since Little was busy dealing with coronavirus fallout the last two days of the session, the bills almost extended the session when the House waited an extra day to adjourn for the year since they wanted to be in town to override a veto, before deciding to adjourn anyway on a 32-28 vote. Since they have adjourned a veto override is no longer an option.
Property and grocery taxes
Lawmakers from both parties started the session saying they wanted to reduce property taxes. While lawmakers agreed to create a committee to study the issue for another year and come back with more ideas in 2021, proposals to freeze or limit local budgets, raise the homeowner’s exemption and raise the “circuit breaker” property tax break all failed due disagreements between the House and the Senate.
Lawmakers have debated for years whether to remove Idaho’s 6% sales tax on groceries, and that’s another debate that seems set to continue. Little included money in his budget proposal for a partial repeal, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, introduced a bill to keep the tax but boost the grocery tax credit to $135 per person. A couple of lawmakers proposed axing the tax entirely but couldn’t get their bills introduced in committee. Bedke’s made it to the House floor but didn't go any further before the session's end.
Medicaid expansion funding
Another goal of many Republicans, at least, was to come up with a funding source for Medicaid expansion, which voters passed in 2018 and which took effect on Jan. 1. A legislative committee that met before the session recommended taking $10.5 million of the sales tax money counties get now to help fund expansion. Democrats mostly opposed this, believing the state should pay for it without diverting money counties get now.
This was also left unresolved. Reps. Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg, and Fred Wood, R-Burley, unsuccessfully proposed bills to redirect some sales tax money counties get now toward Medicaid expansion, and the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee left an $8.5 million hole in the Medicaid budget, expecting it to be filled with one of these proposals. The state may need to cover this with a supplemental appropriation during the 2021 session.
Even if all the incumbents facing challenges return to Boise in 2021 — and with the number of contested races that seems unlikely — the Legislature will look different. Retiring House members include local Reps. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, and Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot. In the Senate, longtime President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, is retiring, as are five others, including Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Bert Brackett, R-Three Creek, chairmen of the Education and Transportation committees.
Lawmakers approved $2 million in March to respond to coronavirus. As of this writing Gov. Brad Little has issued an isolation order for Blaine County, the hardest-hit in the state, and has announced other measures such as tax filing extensions, rolling back some regulations and working on helping health care workers get equipment. However, he said Monday he has no plans to order the more restrictive measures governors in some states have.
“We’re following the same guidelines from the (Centers for Disease Control) we’ve followed (from) the very first day, which is unless there is community spread, there will be no social isolation or shelter in place order,” he said at a news conference.
Schools are closed statewide, and a handful of local governments have taken stricter steps. The number of confirmed cases has been increasingly quickly. The first was reported on March 13, and as of Tuesday there were 89. One outstanding question is whether the outbreak could get so bad, it will require a special session of the Legislature to deal with the problems it creates.