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Session Results: What came out of Idaho's 81-day legislative session

Here are some of the highlights from this year’s 81-day legislative session.

BOISE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

This year’s Idaho legislative session saw some surprisingly big accomplishments, including major education and infrastructure investments that will be felt for generations, along with much time spent on culture-wars battles, some of which also led to passage of far-reaching legislation.

Idaho became the first state to follow Texas and enact an abortion lawsuits law, empowering family members of a fetus aborted after six weeks to sue doctors for a minimum of $20,000 in damages each. GOP Gov. Brad Little signed the bill into law despite writing that he feared it “will in short order be proven both unconstitutional and unwise.” Legal challenges were quick to follow; the first lawsuit was filed Wednesday.

Lawmakers spent weeks debating criminalizing parents who allow their children to receive gender-related medical treatment and librarians who allow minors to check out “harmful” materials, and far-reaching election changes, from banning ballot drop boxes to cracking down on voters for switching parties. But none of those proposals became law. Many passed the House, only to die in the Senate without hearings.

The farthest-reaching impacts of this year’s legislative session likely will be financial, with unprecedented boosts to funding for everything from education, including a major increase in early-literacy funds that’s sufficient to cover optional full-day kindergarten statewide; to water, sewer and wastewater upgrades across the state in the hundreds of millions; to Idaho’s first-ever investment in affordable housing development, at $50 million.

The state had a record-busting $1.9 billion budget surplus this year, plus up to $2.5 billion in federal aid funds that are going out to all states to help them recover from the global coronavirus pandemic.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, called this year’s session “historic,” saying, “The ability to … put some surplus money as well as federal money into transportation, clean water, workforce and education is going to pay dividends for generations to come.”

The Legislature and governor also enacted the biggest tax cut in state history, approving a record $600 million in individual and corporate income tax cuts and rebates, with the wealthiest individuals and corporations getting the lion’s share.

Because it was approved early in the legislative session, that pulled the rug out from other popular tax relief proposals, from removing Idaho’s 6% sales tax from groceries to providing property tax relief to homeowners hard-hit by soaring home values.

Complained House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, “Every time this legislature has two dimes to rub together, this is what we see. ... The wealthy and well-connected are showered with money and there are scraps for the people that need it.” She said, “The ball was once again dropped on property tax relief.”

The governor signed the income tax cut bill, HB 436, into law on Feb. 4; just four days later, he signed another major piece of legislation, HB 443, to bring health insurance for Idaho school teachers and staff up to par with that of state employees at a cost of more than $105 million a year. Backers called it a “game changer” for Idaho teacher recruitment and retention.

“I think there was wisdom in our clearing some of the big issues up in the first weeks,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “Sometimes you can do that, sometimes you can’t. When you can do that, going forward, you should.”

Bedke said that’s his advice to his successors; Idaho’s longest-serving House speaker, he’s stepping down from the Legislature this year to run for lieutenant governor.

Here are some of the highlights from this year’s 81-day legislative session:

BILLS THAT DIED

Numerous controversial bills that passed the House died without hearings in the Senate, many of them in the Senate State Affairs Committee, chaired by retiring longtime Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

Among those: HB 475, eliminating a longstanding law on private militias; HB 439, requiring unaffiliated voters to affiliate with a party by March 11 this year or not be able to vote in the May 17 closed GOP primary; HB 666, to criminalize librarians if a minor checks out “harmful” materials; and HB 675, imposing felony penalties on parents of trans youth who allow them to receive hormone treatment, and also on their doctors.

In addition, more than 60 changes to election laws were introduced, but most didn’t pass; several stalled in Lodge’s committee, including proposals to ban ballot drop-off boxes and make big changes in Idaho’s voter identification and registration rules.

Other House-passed bills that died in the Senate panel included measures on masks and immunizations.

“I get beat up for holding bills, and nothing’s held here that I don’t talk over with the committee members and the caucus,” Lodge told the Idaho Press. She said she also researches every bill she gets, and talks with other lawmakers and interested parties, “so that I can make the best decision based on all the information. … That’s why I’m here till 10 or 11 at night.”

Lodge said HB 675, criminalizing treatment for trans youth, interfered with parental rights, among other issues. “I don’t like the idea that this Legislature wants to be in charge of everything,” she said. “They don’t want government interference until they do want it. … They turn around and want the government to interfere with parental rights.”

She noted that throughout her Senate career, she’s supported a Followers of Christ group in her district that objects to the use of modern medicine on religious grounds, including for their children, believing members will go to hell if they partake of modern medicine. “I’ve stood up tall for the Followers out in my area because they really do have a religious objection,” Lodge said, “and you can’t stand tall for that and not stand tall for any other parents that are making different decisions about their children.”

“Adolescence is a tough time,” said Lodge, a former educator. “You have to be engaged.”

“Are we going to save kids’ lives, are we going to try to help them be the best they possibly can be, or are we going to be a state that has rights for some but not for others?” she asked.

On HB 666 on librarians, Lodge recalled her own experience checking out books to children, and how she’d go through them to make sure there weren’t any torn pages and talk to the child about the book. Additional information showed the bill as written wasn’t workable, she said. “I’ve never seen a bill come back that hasn’t been better.”

“It’s the same thing on unaffiliated voters – 310,000 people are unaffiliated,” she said, citing the January figure published by the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. “Many of them are unaffiliated because they just don’t want to be active and involved and get all the stuff from the parties. Our Idaho people are independent.”

Lodge said she took lots of heat on ballot dropoff boxes, but said, “They’re helping disabled people and our elderly people and those with small children.” She did hold a full hearing in her committee on a Senate bill that would have banned those.

“They think that what’s happening someplace else is happening here,” Lodge said. “This is Idaho. We’re different. … Why are we taking legislation that fixes things that aren’t a problem in Idaho? … Our elections are secure.”

One election bill that did pass: Legislation calling for regular post-election audits, as a preventive move against any irregularities. Gov. Brad Little’s proposal easily passed both houses and was signed into law.

On bills to forbid any future mask mandates, Lodge said, “That’s over with. If something were to outbreak, in prisons, they need to be able to protect everybody, hospitals, businesses. Why limit the ability for our society because some people don’t want to wear a mask?”

On HB 475 on private militias, Lodge said, “The perception was why that was held, because it seemed like militias would be able to form. It’s covered in other parts” of state law, she said. But, she said, “It could’ve ended up being more of a problem because of that perception.”

House State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane, R-Nampa, held four Senate-passed bills in his committee, killing them without hearings, in retaliation for Lodge’s moves. Those included two significant campaign finance transparency bills sponsored by Lodge and the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.

“Ultimately, I made the decision that if they’re not willing to move our bills, I just was not going to move their bills as well,” Crane said. “If the Senate’s going to hold up House bills, I’m sorry, but the jersey I wear is the House jersey, and I’m going to bat for the House team.”

“I finally made the decision that enough is enough,” Crane declared.

EDUCATION

Kurt Liebich, president of Idaho’s State Board of Education, called this year’s session one that “made a real difference for public education at all levels.” With all legislative actions this year taken into account, Idaho’s K-12 public school budget will see a 12.5% increase in state funding next year, a $258 million boost. In total funds, it’s up 6.7%. That includes major increases in teacher pay, plus $1,000 bonuses this year for all school employees; a $105 million a year boost to state funding for teacher health insurance; and a $47 million increase in early literacy funds, which is enough to cover optional full-day kindergarten statewide. School districts will decide whether to offer that or use the money for other early-reading programs.

The budget for Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities saw an 8% increase in state general funds, and community colleges got a 9.9% boost in state funds.

Lawmakers also agreed to expand physician training residency programs from Coeur d’Alene to Pocatello, adding 21 new residencies; and to fund $170 million in deferred maintenance Idaho public higher education institutions as part of its Permanent Building Fund budget.

“The citizens of Idaho have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in our campuses, and the funding made available this year will go a long way in helping us keep our higher education asset functioning,” Liebich said.

Lawmakers also received a new report from their Office of Performance Evaluations on K-12 school buildings, which found serious deficiencies. The 103-page report estimated it would cost roughly $1 billion to bring all schools up to “good” condition, and called for a new statewide assessment of school facilities. Lawmakers haven’t yet acted on that.

SOME REALLY BIG NUMBERS

Idaho was allocated roughly $2.5 billion in federal aid funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, and lawmakers this year appropriated or allocated about $1.5 billion of that to be spent either within the current budget year, or in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. That leaves another $1 billion or so, but it’s not lost yet; the vast majority of those funds have to be spent by 2026, so they’ll still have another crack at them next year.

They also had access to an unprecedented state budget surplus and new funding from Congress for infrastructure.

Among the major items funded:

• WATER AND SEWER UPGRADES: Communities across the state will benefit from $300 million in ARPA funds set aside for local water, wastewater or sewer plant upgrades, with priority going to rural communities; $60 million of that will go out next year. Lawmakers also allocated $106 million from another federal source, the bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed this year, for safe drinking and wastewater systems in Idaho, plus $44 million in state general funds. That nearly $500 million investment should go a long way toward addressing struggles Idaho communities large and small have faced with scarce funding for needed upgrades, including to address growth, deteriorating systems, and public health and safety.

• TRANSPORTATION: At the urging of Gov. Brad Little, lawmakers allocated $200 million in state general funds next year to fix deteriorating bridges around the state. The one-time allocation will allow local governments to wipe off a third of Idaho’s backlog of 966 local bridges that are either more than 50 years old, their expected lifespan; are closed; or have weight limits or other restrictions that impede commerce. There’s also $200 million more a year, split between state and local road jurisdictions, to address deferred maintenance. Combined with last year’s transportation funding package, that’s enough to fully fund road maintenance needs in Idaho estimated by a 2020 Boise State University study, “Moving Idaho Forward,” at roughly $240 million a year.

• OTHER BIG TICKETS: Flush with surplus cash, lawmakers approved $100 million to pay off bonded indebtedness on road construction projects, saving on interest; and $175.8 million to pay off nearly all existing debt for state building projects, which by itself saved the state an estimated $63 million in interest while lowering state agency budgets that otherwise would have included bond payments each year. They approved $368.5 million for major capital projects, including a new $112 million state prison; allocated $244 million to deferred maintenance on state facilities statewide; and bolstered Idaho’s rainy-day savings funds by $311 million, bringing both the Budget Stabilization Fund and Public Education Stabilization Fund to their statutory limits, a total of $1.1 billion.

Also approved this year: $75 million to upgrade Idaho’s state veterans homes to all single rooms with private baths, the new U.S. standard; $50 million for “Empowering Parents” grants to help families with education-related costs; and $50 million for initiatives advanced by the Idaho Behavioral Health Council, a joint effort of all three branches of Idaho’s state government, including new treatment facilities and youth crisis centers.

Add to that $50 million for workforce training in in-demand professions; $50 million for broadband access expansion statewide; $38 million for emergency rental assistance; $15 million for child care infrastructure grants; additional amounts for upgrades to state parks, senior centers and more; and $50 million for Idaho’s first-ever investment in affordable housing development, after 30 years with no funding in the state’s housing trust fund. Those ARPA funds will be administered by the Idaho Housing and Finance Association to cover gap financing for 1,000 new affordable homes.

PROPERTY TAX RELIEF

There was lots of talk leading up to the session about property tax relief, but the only major proposal introduced, HB 741 from Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, to raise the sales tax to 7.85% while eliminating most property tax for homeowners and increasing the grocery tax exemption by $75, never advanced. Rice estimated it’d cut property taxes for homeowners by roughly two-thirds, or $750 million. It also would have raised Idaho’s 6% sales tax by more than 30%.

Several smaller-scale proposals did pass, including:

• HB 735a, which would provide $34 million a year in state funding to counties for the next two years while eliminating the current property tax-funded medical indigency program. The bill also calls for the state to pick up costs for public defense, rather than counties, though starting in 2025, state sales tax funds that otherwise would flow to cities and counties through revenue sharing would help pay for that.

Idaho Association of Counties Executive Director Seth Grigg says HB 735a will result in a 5% to 6% reduction in county property taxes, or $34 million a year.

• HB 550, bipartisan legislation from Reps. John Gannon, D-Boise, and Mike Moyle, R-Star, to allow cities the option of providing property tax rebates with city funds to homeowners who qualify for the existing “circuit breaker” property tax relief program for needy seniors. The move was welcomed by Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, who called it “a meaningful way to provide significant property tax relief to Boiseans who need it most.”

• HB 481, which would partially soften the blow of last year’s HB 389 on needy seniors who otherwise would lose the circuit breaker, because HB 389 disqualifies them if their homes are worth more than 125% of the county’s median home value. HB 481 raises that to 150% or $300,000, but still doesn’t cover all the otherwise qualified circuit breaker recipients would lose the break; an estimated 625 existing recipients still would be disqualified based on their home values alone.

• HB 788, the portion of the public school budget for Children’s Programs, increases early literacy funding by $46.7 million a year, which school districts could tap to fund optional full-day kindergarten or other early reading interventions. Because many school districts currently fund full-day kindergarten programs through supplemental property tax levies, that would bring property tax relief in those districts.

• SB 1259 would exempt Medicaid payments to operators of certified care homes for people with disabilities from the income calculations for the circuit breaker, meaning needy seniors who care for up to four patients in their home wouldn’t lose their eligibility for the property tax reduction as they do now. While providing about $350,000 in property tax relief, the care homes save the state $300 million a year it would otherwise spend to institutionalize those patients.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, “We did do several things on the edges on property tax. There’s going to be more to do. The big one that I would prefer, when we take it off of everybody, and move the sales tax up a little bit, if I'm re-elected we’ll push that further.”

BALANCE OF POWER

While last year the Legislature pushed back against the executive branch, disputing and trimming back the governor’s emergency powers, this year’s clash between branches came late in the session when lawmakers sought to give the governor much more power over the judicial branch, by making big changes to the Idaho Judicial Council and the judge appointment process.

The bill, HB 782, passed both houses, but was vetoed by Gov. Brad Little. It sought to expand the Idaho Judicial Council, which vets nominees for open judge positions and also handles judicial discipline and other matters, from seven to 11 members and have the governor appoint 10 of the 11; he currently appoints three of the seven. It also would have allowed the governor to reject a slate of nominees from the council for a judge opening and demand an all-new one with no repeats.

Lodge was among senators debating against the bill in the Senate. “Let's put some thought into this,” she urged her Senate colleagues. “Last year it was the executive branch that we were looking at and trying to change some of the powers of the executive branch, and now we're looking at the judiciary. Good senators, think about this. Give this some thought. ... We need to have the branch that's being considered in this legislation have an opportunity for more input."

Many lawmakers are nursing resentment toward the courts over last year’s Idaho Supreme Court decision invalidating their anti-initiative legislation on constitutional grounds, and for rejecting challenges this fall to a legislative redistricting plan that is forcing some incumbent lawmakers to face off in the May primary. Others are still upset that former longtime Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis wasn’t among the Judicial Council’s nominations for an Idaho Supreme Court opening last spring, when the council put forth an all-female slate of nominees and the governor appointed Justice Colleen Zahn.

Winder said he initially rejected the request from Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bevan that lawmakers participate in a broad-based study over the next year rather than pass legislation right now. "My response to the chief justice was let's see how this plays out in the Legislature, and then we can see if we want to do a study afterwards," he said.

Last year, lawmakers “did try to provide some balance of power,” Winder said, and he said that’s continuing.

On the session’s final day on Thursday, Bedke said he was reluctant to appoint House members to the court panel, which is set to include lawmakers, judges, attorneys and members of the public. “I don’t think that the citizens of the state are well-served when all three branches do a working group,” he said. “The legislative branch are the policy-setters, the lawmakers.”

Because raises for judges next year were rolled into HB 782, and the Senate declined to take up a separate bill still pending on its calendar just to fund raises for judges next year, lawmakers ended their session having approved raises for every other class of state employees next year except for judges, despite a judicial recruitment crisis on which lawmakers were repeatedly briefed this year.

THE SESSION THAT WAS

Overall, Winder said, “This really wasn’t a bad session.”

“You think about last year and all the things we went through with COVID, the extended session, the fears and concerns that were expressed. … The public felt safer coming into the building this year.” Plus, he noted, “Remote testimony that was established during COVID played well.”

Rubel said, “I was pleased at some of the really dangerous stuff that got stopped – jailing librarians, locking up parents of transgender children, making it impossible for young people to vote.”

But she particularly decried SB 1309, the abortion lawsuits law. “Turning a woman’s family members into abortion informants for pay and profit feels like something you would see in North Korea, and not in Idaho,” she said.

Little had high praise for the session, saying in a statement, “In all my years, I have never seen a more successful legislative session that produced so many positive results for the people we serve.”

“We’ve done a lot of good things,” Moyle said. “Sometimes the good things we do get lost in the minutiae of things that people aren’t happy about."

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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