The 2013 legislative session came within one important action of being perhaps the most productive session of the past decade - on the level of the 2003 session, when then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne took bold action to salvage state services.
This year's session was pretty successful overall but would have been much better if lawmakers had accepted the federal offer to pay for a dramatic expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal partnership that provides medical care to our poorest people. Legislators missed an opportunity to provide a lifeline for more than 100,000 Idahoans while saving taxpayers $478 million over 10 years. The issue isn't going away; Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher of Meridian sees Medicaid expansion as a leading issue of next year's session. We just wish the relief to taxpayers and those without insurance could have happened this year.
But good things came out of this session, and here's a quick look at some of the highlights:
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Burley. What a refreshing change. He was thoughtful, engaged and decisive - the very qualities that make for an effective speaker. The quality of the top leadership in both parties was the best we've seen in some time. Congress could afford to take lessons from this group.
State-run health exchange. Gov. Butch Otter, breaking ranks with Republican colleagues nationally, led the charge in creating a state-based online insurance marketplace - which is a better choice than federal control. House Republican freshmen and Democrats helped get the plan passed.
The education budget. Lawmakers approved a $1.3 billion budget for public schools that was supported by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and the Idaho Education Association. In itself, that's an accomplishment for the ages.
Education reform. This success was what legislators DIDN'T do. Otter urged them to take a break from tinkering after the resounding November defeat of the Students Come First propositions, and for the most part - one exception came in the waning hours of the session - legislators followed his advice. The governor appointed a task force to make recommendations for next year. The Legislature will have its own interim committee looking at some of the labor issues.
Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Caldwell. He doesn't get gold stars for everything. But he refused to hold a hearing on legislation that would have forced Idaho sheriffs and local law enforcement officials to think twice about working with federal officials on crimes involving guns.
A change in tone on human rights. The Senate did not "add the words" to Idaho's Human Rights Act that would prohibit discrimination against gays. But advocates were permitted to offer reasoned pleas and senators listened respectfully.
Business personal property tax. It amounted to $20 million, far short of the $120 million that industry groups wanted. Overall, it was a small victory for local governments, which were looking at a big revenue source drying up. It also was a small victory for legislators who campaigned on repealing the unfair tax.
As with any session, there were also some negatives. Perhaps the most embarrassing action was the Senate's rejection of Joan Hurlock to the Fish and Game Commission. She had the support of other commission members and was praised for her work as an interim member of the board.
Another wrong turn was the Legislature's decision to make it more difficult to get voter initiatives on the ballot. There's no evidence of abuse in the initiative process as is. The new law was unnecessary.
As usual, plenty of challenges remain for next year - starting with education reform. We're eager to see what the governor's task force presents and what comes from the legislative interim committee.
On the budget front, the Legislature did well with limited resources. But the state still lags in funding education, transportation and other services. State leaders are going to have to figure a way to make the pie bigger - as Kempthorne did successfully 10 years ago.
Deciding to expand Medicaid to help another 100,000 poor and sick Idahoans would have been a giant step in that direction.
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