BOISE — After 95 days in session, the Idaho Legislature adjourned for the year Thursday.
It was the longest session since 2009, and much of it, particularly the last month or so, was dominated by arguments over Medicaid expansion and whether to change the threshold to get an initiative on the ballot.
Gov. Brad Little ended up signing a bill to seek federal waivers to add work requirements and other restrictions to Medicaid expansion. However, he vetoed a bill that would have greatly increased the number of signatures needed for a ballot initiative.
One accomplishment of the session was passing a bill raising starting teacher pay to $40,000 a year over the course of two years, an oft-repeated campaign promise of Little’s. Lawmakers also passed a number of bipartisan bills to loosen up occupational licensing laws.
However, there were many bills dealing with major issues that got introduced but didn’t pass for one reason or another. Those include:
An effort to add a seventh member to Idaho’s redistricting commission never resurfaced after it was pulled in February.
Per a 1994 constitutional amendment, Idaho’s legislative district lines are drawn by a six-member panel of three Democrats and three Republicans. A Republican-backed bill would have put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to add a seventh member appointed by Idaho’s statewide elected officials, almost certainly resulting in a 4-3 Republican panel.
The bill quickly cleared committee but the Democrats protested, threatening to slow down the House’s business as much as possible, and the Republicans pulled the bill, leaving the process unchanged going into the redistricting that will follow the 2020 Census.
For the second year in a row, legislation to ease Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking passed the House overwhelmingly but never got a hearing in the Senate.
Sponsored by Reps. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, and Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, the bill would have removed the word “mandatory” from the sentences listed in Idaho’s drug trafficking statute, which also covers possession of large amounts of drugs. This would have given judges the option of imposing lower sentences in cases where they feel the circumstances warrant.
However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, opposes the bill and refused to hold a Senate hearing on it, effectively killing the bill. Rubel said she plans to keep pushing it next year.
“I am not giving up on this issue at all,” she said. “I think the more people learn about it, the more they want to pass it.”
Vaccine exemption notifications
A bill that would have required schools and child care centers to notify parents of their right to not vaccinate their children passed the House 52-17 in late February. However, Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Martin, R-Boise, opposes the bill and didn’t hold a Senate hearing on it.
Idaho lets parents opt out of vaccinating their children for any reason, and Idaho has one of the highest opt-out rates in the nation. One vaccine-related rule that did pass, albeit narrowly, was one to require students entering 12th grade to be vaccinated for meningitis.
No hemp-related legislation passed this year, leaving Idaho one of the few states in the country where hemp cultivation will still be illegal and where even out-of-state truckers transporting the product will risk going to prison.
Hemp, a non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana that has numerous industrial uses, was legalized nationally by the 2018 Farm Bill. A bill to legalize hemp cultivation in Idaho passed the House overwhelmingly, but the Senate amended it extensively in response to the concerns of law enforcement, who opposed the bill. The amended bill left hemp on the list of Schedule I controlled substances. This led most of its House sponsors to drop their support.
Another bill that would have legalized the transport of hemp through the state, with permits and inspections required, but wouldn’t have legalized its cultivation, died Thursday when the House decided not to agree with some changes the Senate had made to the bill. Some supporters of legalizing hemp said it would be easier for Idaho to adopt the federal government’s plan on hemp growing, making it more likely Idaho farmers will be able to start growing hemp next year.
School funding formula
When the year started, everyone thought a much-anticipated rewrite of the school funding formula was going to be one of the year’s major issues. Idaho lawmakers have spent about three years studying switching from the current attendance-based formula to a weighted enrollment-based one.
Lawmakers did pass a bill to gather more student data in preparation for switching to a new funding formula in the future. Several versions of bills to rewrite the formula itself were introduced in March, but none of them went further than a committee hearing.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said at a news conference just after adjournment that lawmakers would continue to discuss the issue after the session and come back with something next year. He said lawmakers need to take more time to ensure parents and school trustees understand it.
“When it becomes familiar to them, they will like it better,” he said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, to switch Idaho’s sex education system to require parents to opt in, instead of requiring them to opt out, as is the case now, passed the House on a party-line vote but was held in committee in the Senate.
Idaho’s prisons are full and the state sends about 700 inmates to private prisons in Texas since there isn’t room in-state. Last year the Board of Correction voted to support a $500 million plan to build a new prison.
The 2019-2020 budget does include money to expand the St. Anthony Work Camp and build another community reentry center in northern Idaho. However, Little himself said this was a stopgap, and lawmakers will likely have to address the issue more seriously sometime in the next few years.
Idaho sets no minimum age for marriage. Sixteen-and-17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission, and younger children can marry if a judge also signs off. Although the number of child marriages in Idaho has generally been going down over the past 20 years, from 2000 to 2010 Idaho had the highest per-capita rate of underage marriage out of the 38 states that track the data.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, introduced a bill that would have set a minimum age for marriage at 16 and required a judge’s permission for 16-and-17-year-olds. The bill made it out of committee but was voted down by the full House 39-28.
Perhaps the most controversial bill of the year other than Medicaid expansion work requirements, in its final form Senate Bill 1159 paired with House Bill 296 would have raised the threshold to get an initiative on the ballot from the signatures of 6 percent of registered voters in 18 out of the state’s legislative districts to 10 percent of registered voters in two-thirds of the state’s districts. It also would have cut signature-gathering time from 18 to 9 months.
The bills passed the Legislature but Little vetoed them, citing worries that the state would get embroiled in a losing lawsuit. Republican lawmakers reintroduced them as four separate bills, none of which passed before lawmakers adjourned sine die, meaning the process hasn’t changed.
Bedke said the bill would have ensured rural Idaho a greater voice in the process.
“Any process that de facto locks out the rural parts of the state is a flawed process, in our opinion, and I think that the attempts you saw to modify the initiative process were driven by the fact that those parts of the state were left out,” he said.
Rubel said the bill would have “effectively stripped Idaho voters entirely of their ability to bring ballot initiatives forward.” She said Republicans listened to the handful of lobbyists who supported it rather than the far greater number of citizens who came to testify against it.
“Legislation aimed at silencing voters’ voices was hatched in secret meetings between corporate lobbyists and GOP legislators,” she said. “Hearings were arranged by GOP leaders without adequate public notice, and public testimony was cut off or in some cases bypassed entirely by GOP committee chairs.”
“This is probably one of the most unusual sessions in the 11 years I’ve been in the Legislature,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said as the Senate prepared to adjourn for the year.
Winder said that, especially toward the end of the session, it was like “trench warfare. … There’ve been some hard votes taken on our floor this year.”
Winder said he’s proud to be majority leader of the Senate.
“Yes it is a challenging job, it didn’t get any easier this year,” he said. “I hope each one of us will be better legislators next year, and we can figure out our way forward.”
Idaho Press Boise bureau chief Betsy Russell contributed.