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Education and transportation are big achievements for 2015 Idaho Legislature

The Idaho Legislature’s 2015 session ended some 90 minutes into its 90th day early Saturday, its big finale a Hail Mary compromise on $94 million in new spending to try to shore up the state’s long-neglected roads and bridges.

That transportation spending and a broad, consensus deal on a 7.4 percent education funding increase, including a five-year teacher pay hike, will be recorded as the session highlights. The $1.476 billion education budget is 48 percent of the state budget.

“This has been a monumental session from an education standpoint,” said House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle. “It took us a while to get it right, but in the end, we had unanimous support. That just doesn’t happen.”

“A few days ago, people said this will go down as the legislative session that they got nothing done. They were wrong,” said President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.

But the Legislature didn’t accomplish all of its goals. A sweeping tax plan by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, sailed through the GOP-controlled House but died on the Senate side.

“We definitely need to make Idaho more competitive and we will look at the tax structure in the state next year,” Moyle said. “I’m hopeful we can come up with a solution.”

SPECIAL SESSION?

The session’s conclusion was marred by a last-minute rejection by conservative lawmakers of federal child-support collection rules that jeopardized $46 million in federal funding. The House, working to close the transportation deal, declined to take up the matter in its final hours and the focus is now on whether Gov. Butch Otter will call lawmakers back for a brief special session to address it.

When House Speaker Scott Bedke gaveled the proceedings closed at 1:36 a.m., about 45 minutes after the Senate’s adjournment and two weeks after the originally predicted March 27 end date, it wrapped up one of the five-longest sessions in state history. The longest, at 119 days, came in 2009.

The road funding deal, which cleared a special House-Senate conference committee unanimously Friday afternoon after two days of occasionally rancorous discussion, arrived on the Senate floor for passage at 11 p.m. It took almost two hours, including procedural delays, before the Senate approved it, 26-9, at 12:48 a.m.

No legislator embraced the package unreservedly, with even its most ardent supporters lamenting it was merely the best lawmakers could produce amid disagreements on how best to address a $262 million annual shortfall in road and bridge maintenance. Consensus emerged around reaching a figure that is roughly half the shortfall, though lawmakers could not agree on how to get there. A provision of the compromise calls for a portion of potential surplus revenue to augment the $94 million raised through registration fees and gas taxes.

“We’ve come a long way to reach this point,” said Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, the chairman of the Senate Transportation committee, at midnight on the Senate floor. “It’s a good bill. It’s not a perfect bill but it’s a good start.”

The House convened at 1 a.m. and moved quickly to take up the bill, debating only 20 minutes before approving it, 51-19.

“I will support this bill. I believe we all know what’s in it,” said Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, the House Transportation Committee chairman. “I think it’s time to go home.”

SURPRISE DETOUR ON CHILD SUPPORT

As the conference committee worked to pin down the transportation deal Friday, a House committee voted 9-8 to kill legislation, previously passed by the Senate, to bring Idaho into compliance with federal child-support collection rules after lawmakers said they feared that Islamic Sharia law could influence Idaho’s enforcement authority, despite assurances to the contrary from state lawyers.

Objecting lawmakers feared the bill was tied to an international convention on child-support payments, and that Idaho as a result might have to enforce child-support rulings made under Sharia. Their rejection, in addition to blocking the federal funding, also potentially makes Idaho a haven for parents seeking to evade child support.

House Democrats turned to a parliamentary move early Saturday to drag the legislation out of committee for consideration by the full House but were outvoted 49-12.

“This is a bill of immense consequences to the state of Idaho,” said Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who sought the motion.

The Associated Press contributed.

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