Longtime observers of the Idaho Legislature are in near-unanimous agreement: The 2019 legislative session was the most dismal in memory.
True, lawmakers enacted some good policy here and there.
The Legislature made the first moves toward raising starting teacher pay to $40,000, budgeted funds for early childhood literacy programs, passed legislation ensuring that every sexual assault kit submitted in Idaho will receive forensic testing and made efforts to cut red tape in the state’s occupational licensure system.
These are sensible policies that will produce concrete good for the state, improving education, public safety and the economic climate. This is what policymaking should look like, what it does look like when the Legislature is at its best.
But the Legislature was not at its best this year.
Where lawmakers had the chance to solve problems — many remarkably simple, some quite difficult — they fumbled the ball more often than they advanced it. The Legislature behaved in a manner that was strikingly profligate, tossing out gobs of money for the sake of ideology or due to simple bickering, with no clear benefit. Worst of all, lawmakers behaved with clear and sustained contempt for the voters who sent them to Boise.
After three years of work and study, the Legislature didn’t make more than tacit progress in rewriting the antiquated formula used to distribute state funds to local school districts.
In a truly shameful failure of conscience, the House voted down simple legislation that would have set the minimum age for marriage at 16. Right now, there is no minimum age in Idaho, and obvious cases of abuse abound, including a local case in which a 13-year-old girl was married off to a 39-year-old man who had raped her, who then abused her for years with the law’s blessing. The callous, heartless disregard for victims of abuse that this showed is simply beyond words.
A truck driver who was hauling a load of industrial hemp — a nonintoxicating cousin of marijuana used for the production of fiber, oil and seeds as well as CBD — faces a long possible prison sentence for doing his job. He was simply a trucker hauling a load, a load that is legal nearly everywhere in the country, and now he faces ruin. The Legislature couldn’t find a way to prevent similar injustices.
Lawmakers imposed a slapdash raft of “sideboards” on voter-approved Medicaid expansion, despite the fact that many are likely to be denied by the federal government or tossed out in court. But it will cost taxpayers an estimated $2.6 million. That’s before legal costs.
And gamesmanship between the House and Senate resulted in a deadlock, so the Legislature left Boise without passing a bill finalizing a host of executive branch rules governing agencies from the Tax Commission to Idaho Fish and Game. According to Boise State Public Radio, the cost to taxpayers of this final stunt — which will accomplish precisely nothing, since agencies will simply put the same rules in effect until the next legislative session — will come to about $400,000.
Worst of all, the Legislature demonstrated deep contempt for the people who entrusted them with their jobs. As has happened before, after a significant ballot initiative passed, lawmakers moved swiftly to eliminate the ability to do it again. Thankfully, Gov. Brad Little vetoed the bills, but don’t expect that you’ve seen the last of them.
Nonetheless, the 2019 legislative session will be remembered as one of the most significant in decades.
Next year, tens of thousands of low-income Idahoans who had no access to health care will have it for the first time.
And by keeping constant pressure on elected officials, the people preserved their rights.
These, the primary accomplishments of the 2019 session, do not belong to the Legislature. They come despite the Legislature.
They belong to the people of the state of Idaho.