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Legislative session wraps up with many challenges unaddressed

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BOISE — When Idaho lawmakers convened this year’s session in January, they faced four big challenges on health care, tax revenue, school funding and prison policy.

Three-and-a-half months later, they wrapped up a session that put off decisions on three of those four points; focused heavily on changing the Medicaid expansion initiative that voters passed in November; and even more heavily, and more controversially, on restricting future voter initiatives — a move that drew new Gov. Brad Little’s first veto.

Boise State University political scientist emeritus Gary Moncrief said, “It seemed like the wheels fell off and were just rolling down the Statehouse halls all session.” In his four decades of observing the Idaho Legislature, Moncrief said, “It just seems to be one of the worst pieces of goal displacement I’ve ever seen. … We just kind of got completely sidetracked on these other things.”

Implementing the voter-passed Medicaid expansion initiative, which passed as Proposition 2 in November with 60.6 percent of the vote, merely required the Legislature to appropriate the funds, and Little provided lawmakers a painless way to do it: His proposal taps tobacco settlement funds and savings in other programs from expanding Medicaid next year to cover the full cost, without spending a penny of the state’s general fund.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed that funding bill early in the session, but it hung on the House calendar for five weeks without a vote, as House members battled for “sideboards” to be attached to Medicaid expansion — work requirements, expiration dates, a family planning clause and more. All were strongly opposed in hourslong hearings on various proposals in both houses. In the end, the sideboards bill passed and Little signed it into law, while expressing strong reservations — including that the work requirements may land the state in a costly court fight, coming after federal courts overturned similar requirements in Kentucky and Arkansas in March.

“I have concerns regarding the work and training reporting requirements in this bill,” Little wrote in his transmittal letter as he signed the bill. “Similar requirements have resulted in costly lawsuits and were recently struck down in federal courts.” He urged lawmakers to make changes next year.

But the fight over Medicaid “sideboards” was mild compared to the legislative battles this year over a new proposal from freshman Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, to make it much, much harder to qualify initiatives or referendums for the Idaho ballot in the future.

“Overuse of that initiative ballot process can cause dysfunctional governing,” Grow told the Senate. “It is a way to circumvent the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives.”

Idaho actually has had few ballot measures pass, just 15 initiatives in state history, and four referendums, including three in 2012. The Idaho Constitution has guaranteed voters the right to initiative and referendum since 1912.

After Idaho voters repealed the “Luna Laws” on school reform by referendum in 2012 — the first time voters had done that since 1936 — lawmakers upped the requirements to qualify initiatives or referendums for the ballot, saying they were concerned about preserving rural voices, as Idaho’s population became increasingly urban. Instead of just 6 percent of registered voters statewide, proponents also would now be required to collect signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.

No measure qualified for the ballot after that until 2018, when two initiatives qualified, one on gambling at horse racetracks and the other on expanding Medicaid, something lawmakers had refused to take action on for six straight years. The Medicaid expansion initiative passed.

Grow’s bill proposed upping the requirements to 10 percent of registered voters both statewide and in 32 of the 35 legislative districts, plus cutting the time allowed to gather signatures by two-thirds and imposing other restrictions. The bill drew strong opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, professors, retired judges, and especially those who had worked to pass Proposition 2. But it passed. The requirement for 10 percent of signatures from registered voters statewide moved the number of signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot up from about 55,000 to about 92,000.

Former longtime Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa called the bill “a full frontal assault on the people’s constitutional right of initiative.” Four former Idaho attorneys general from both parties said it was likely unconstitutional.

Feeling the heat, lawmakers then hastily introduced a new follow-up bill to slightly soften the restrictions, setting the bar at 24 legislative districts and cutting the time in half, rather than by two-thirds. That bill, though equally unpopular, also passed. Thousands of calls poured in to Little’s office urging a veto; he vetoed both bills.

TAX REVENUE

Lawmakers are required by the state constitution to pass a balanced budget each year, and this year, tax collections have lagged far behind forecasts, mostly due to lower-than-expected withholding collections for the state’s individual income tax, following changes to both state and federal tax laws last year. That money may all come in April, when Idahoans file their state income tax returns, or it may not — but Little opened the session by saying it’s prudent to wait until next year to remove the state’s 6 percent sales tax from groceries. Lawmakers already voted to do that in 2017, but then-Gov. Butch Otter vetoed it. At that time, that move had a price tag of $79 million a year to the state treasury.

Lawmakers were disappointed that March tax revenues came in below forecasts, even though for that month, individual income taxes finally hit forecasts. Previously strong sales and corporate income taxes fell short. The situation was concerning enough that at the end of this year’s session, lawmakers scrapped a plan to start diverting millions from the state’s rainy-day savings account to a new endowment fund for road work.

Legislature Sine Die

Members of the house of representatives relax during a break before state lawmakers agree to adjourn Sine Die from the current legislative session at the Idaho State Capitol, Thursday, April 11, 2019.

SCHOOL FUNDING

A major revamp of the complex formula by which Idaho divides half the state budget and sends it out to school districts to fund public schools has been in the works for three years, and this was supposed to be the year the new formula was adopted. But stakeholders on all sides balked, with many saying the data wasn’t trustworthy enough to rely on to make such big changes in school funding. In the end, the only thing that passed was a bill to gather more data for the next year and align it with the proposed new definitions in the formula, so lawmakers can consider the change again next year.

Gov. Brad Little separately was pressing for funding the fifth year of the teacher “career ladder” pay plan, a $49.7 million item that passed handily; and raising Idaho’s starting teacher salary to $40,000 from the current $35,800. With the state’s revenue worries, Little scaled back his bill to phase in the teacher pay increase over two years instead of one, and it passed.

PRISON POLICY

Idaho’s state Board of Correction raised eyebrows across the state when it voted in June to back a $500 million-plus prison expansion proposal, including a big new state prison, but that’s not what ended up getting approved. Instead, lawmakers approved Little’s proposals for a mix of adding 220 minimum-security and work-release beds and focusing on improving supervision of offenders in Idaho communities next year. Idaho will add 17 new staffers in probation and parole; boost pay for correctional officers, who currently start at $15 per hour and have a turnover rate of 23 percent; and quadruple funding for electronic monitoring.

New state Corrections Director Josh Tewalt said the state’s biggest prison problem is returnees. “Three-quarters of the people coming into our prison system are people we have failed before,” he told lawmakers.

The House, for the second straight year, passed legislation seeking to ease some mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking, which now impose lengthy prison terms based solely on the amount of drugs a person possesses, regardless of intent. New Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, refused to give the House-passed bill a hearing, so it died.

Meanwhile, an interim committee that’s been working on the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative for several years, trying to find ways to reserve prison cells for the most dangerous offenders and save money while making Idaho’s communities safer, recommended lawmakers reconsider the state’s sentencing laws, including the mandatory minimum terms. Nothing passed on that score, but the interim committee was reauthorized to continue meeting in the coming year.

Legislature Sine Die

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder (R) informs Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin that the senate is prepared to adjourn Sine Die, ending the current legislative session at the Idaho State Capitol, Thursday, April 11, 2019.

OTHER ISSUES ADDRESSED

Here are some other issues that lawmakers addressed this year, on which legislation passed:

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: SB 1113 passed and was signed into law, to require more frequent reporting, impose fines on violators within 48 hours, and create a new, central, searchable database maintained by the Idaho Secretary of State for all campaign finance reports, from all levels of government. Local campaigns would have to report only once they’ve either raised or spent $500. The changes were recommended by a bipartisan interim committee that met for the past two years. The panel’s other proposal, for more disclosure of independent expenditures and electioneering communications, failed; the interim committee was authorized to meet again in the coming year.

URBAN RENEWAL: Legislation requiring a public vote for certain urban renewal projects — like Boise’s proposed new main library and multi-use sports stadium — was proposed by four GOP lawmakers, none of them from Boise, and passed amid strong opposition from the city of Boise. Little signed the bill into law.

FIRST RESPONDER PTSI: Bipartisan legislation to cover post-traumatic stress injury for emergency responders under workers’ compensation passed both houses and was signed into law by the governor on March 12. Under current law, there’s no coverage unless a first responder with post-traumatic stress also suffers an accompanying physical injury, like “a back injury or an ankle injury,” said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, the bill’s lead sponsor. “This bill seeks to fix that.” It takes effect July 1, and expires July 1, 2023, unless lawmakers extend it.

CAR INSURANCE: Starting Jan. 1, Idaho will cross-check vehicle registrations with proof of insurance, and suspend the registration of uninsured vehicles, rather than wait until they’re pulled over on the roads and caught. HB 179, sponsored by freshman Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, was signed into law by the governor on April 2.

NOT ADDRESSED

Here are some issues lawmakers were asked to address but on which nothing passed:

HEMP: Despite numerous attempts to bring Idaho in line with its neighbors, and nearly every other state, in legalizing industrial hemp now that the federal government has done so nationally in the 2018 Farm Bill, nothing passed, and hemp remains illegal in Idaho. That means Idaho could potentially see the Idaho State Police continue to arrest interstate truckers who bring legal hemp from other states through Idaho, because Idaho law currently makes no distinction between marijuana and its non-psychoactive cousin. One company is suing the state in federal court to get its hemp shipment back after its driver was charged with marijuana trafficking and faces a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, based on the amount of the product he was hauling. The House passed legislation to legalize hemp, but the Senate amended it due to concerns from law enforcement and prosecutors, and the House rejected the amendments.

FAITH HEALING: Idaho didn’t change its laws protecting faith-healing parents from criminal prosecution or civil liability if their child dies from lack of medical care.

LOCAL OPTION TAXES: Despite a push from local governments across the state, no new local-option taxing authority was approved.

MARIJUANA/CBD OIL: Idaho lawmakers maintained their strict anti-marijuana stance, rejecting any attempt to legalize cannabidiol, or CBD, products that contain trace amounts of THC; those with zero THC remain legal.

DRIVERS ON THE PHONE: Legislation to forbid Idaho drivers from using hand-held cellphones while they drive was narrowly killed in the Senate; competing legislation to forbid local cell-phone bans for drivers was killed by one vote in a House committee.

LIQUOR LICENSE REFORM: A sweeping proposal from Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, to reform Idaho’s archaic liquor license system failed, amid opposition from current license holders who paid top dollar and said their licenses would lose value.

FIREWORKS: No legislation addressed Idaho’s current situation in which aerial fireworks are illegal to use in the state, but are being sold in Idaho to Idahoans who sign forms saying they’ll shoot them off elsewhere. Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan was among those pushing to make those sales illegal.

ADD THE WORDS: Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, introduced legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act, to ban discrimination on those bases in employment, housing, education and public accommodations, but the bill never got a hearing.

TRUCK FEES: Another year went by without the Legislature addressing fees on heavy commercial trucks; a 2010 state-commissioned highway cost allocation study showed truckers are underpaying for their vehicles’ impacts on Idaho roads, and motorists are overpaying. Two interim committees were created over the last several years to come up with legislation to fix the problem, but neither recommended any changes. Last summer, House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer blocked an interim committee from considering the issue by never calling a meeting. A 2015 law said Idaho would impose a new weight-distance tax on trucks “on or before Jan. 1, 2019,” but that never happened.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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