State Politics

The 2019 Idaho legislative session has many unknowns. The one thing for certain? Change

Brad Little gives Inaugural Address as the 33rd Governor of Idaho

Brad Little has been sworn in as the 33rd Governor of Idaho. Little highlighted a few of his goals for his administration during his nine-minute Inaugural Address, including: education, the economy and restoring Idahoans' faith in state government.
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Brad Little has been sworn in as the 33rd Governor of Idaho. Little highlighted a few of his goals for his administration during his nine-minute Inaugural Address, including: education, the economy and restoring Idahoans' faith in state government.

This year’s political forecast is an easy one: 2019 will be a year of marked change at the Idaho Capitol.

When the new 65th Idaho Legislature officially convenes Monday, it will be the first time in 12 years there will be a new “gentleman on the second floor” — which, as a matter of parliamentary courtesy, is how lawmakers refer to the governor while on the Senate and House floors.

Any returning lawmaker who has served six or fewer terms, which is about 85 percent of Idaho legislators, has only known working with Gov. Butch Otter and his administration at the helm.

And that new gentleman on the second floor — Gov. Brad Little, who has been at Otter’s side the first Monday of every January when Otter gives his annual State of the State address — will step up to the lectern at 1 p.m. Monday to give his inaugural State of the State address. Little, surrounded by family and friends, took the oath of office Friday afternoon.

“In a fast-moving world, a robust education is imperative to compete,” Little said at the inauguration. “We must keep cultivating the skills of our citizens as we progress from a historically agrarian society to a modern information-driven economy.”

Along with a new governor, the Capitol will house its first new treasurer in 20 years, its first new lieutenant governor in 10 years and 24 new lawmakers. Additionally, almost a dozen state agencies will have new people sitting in the director’s seat.

Changing landscape

Here’s where you will see some of those new faces — or familiar faces in new places:

Statewide offices: In addition to the governor, two other statewide officeholders are new: Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and Treasurer Julie Ellsworth. McGeachin is Idaho’s first female lieutenant governor, and, for the first time, three of the seven statewide offices are held by women. McGeachin’s duties include presiding over the Idaho Senate, a job Little has held since 2009.

Legislature: Nearly one-quarter of the 105-member Legislature is new. The freshman group has 15 Republicans and six Democrats in the House and two Republicans and one Democrat in the Senate. Of the 24 new members, 17 are men and seven are women. The 35-member Senate comprises 28 Republicans and seven Democrats. The 70-member House comprises 56 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Republicans hold 80 percent of the 105 seats in both chambers. Men hold 70 percent of the seats.

JFAC: One of the Legislature’s most powerful committees — the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee — has been co-chaired by Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. Bell joined the committee in 1991, and has been its co-chairwoman since 2001. Keogh joined the committee in 2001 and has been its co-chairwoman since 2016. Both retired this year and with them goes a combined four decades of JFAC knowledge. The new co-chairmen are Republican Sen. Steve Bair, of Blackfoot, who has been on JFAC since 2015, and Republican Rep. Rick Youngblood, of Nampa, who has been on JFAC since 2013. Lewiston Sen. Dan Johnson and Idaho Falls Rep. Wendy Horman, both Republicans, are new vice-chairs.

Agency heads: Little has already made changes at several state agencies. Departments of Administration, Commerce, Corrections, Financial Management, Health and Welfare, Juvenile Corrections, Labor, and Occupational Licenses all have new directors.

Governor’s Office: Little has assembled a new staff including Zach Hauge, chief of staff; Sam Eaton, director of policy and counsel; Bobbi-Jo Meuleman, director of intergovernmental affairs; Emily Callihan, director or communications; and Marissa Morrison, press secretary. One familiar face will still be in the Governor’s Office: Claudia Simplot Nally. She has served under Govs. Phil Batt, Dirk Kempthorne, Jim Risch and Butch Otter. Little on Friday announced Brian Wonderlich, who has served as a Holland & Hart law partner and former deputy attorney general, will serve as general counsel for the office of the governor.

Keep an eye on

In addition to the influx of new elected officials and agency heads, three new developments warrant attention this session.

Medicaid expansion: The initiative passed by Idaho voters in November is already law. But before Idaho residents can partake, it must survive pending legal challenges, and get the governor’s and Legislative action on budget items, including authorizing the expenditure of federal Medicaid dollars and funding the state’s matching share.

At an Associated Press legislative preview event Thursday, Little said certain conditions, such requiring people to actively seek employment or to already have a job, could be part of the discussion for Idaho lawmakers as they address the issue in the 2019 session. On Friday, Boise State Public Radio reported that the chairman of the Idaho Senate Health and Welfare Committee, Fred Martin, does not support adding work requirements under the expansion. That’s important, because Martin could choose whether or not to hold a committee hearing for a Meidcaid expansion bill that includes those requirements.

Criminal justice reform: Idaho has been slowly tackling criminal justice reform. Last month, Congress passed a criminal justice reform bill. While the new federal law does not affect state sentencing rules or inmates in county jails or state prisons, it could provide an impetus for Idaho to push forward with more reforms.

Industrial hemp: Idaho is one of about 10 states where growing hemp for industrial purposes is illegal. That could change with the new federal Farm Bill approved by Congress last month, which legalized hemp. Hemp is used for such products as paper, textiles, building and automotive materials and bio-plastics.

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, already has drafted legislation to legalize hemp cultivation in Idaho, The Spokesman-Review reported Dec. 15. But on Thursday, Republican leadership, including Little, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Sentate Pro-Tem Brent Hill, said they have concerns that legalizing hemp could allow for smuggling of marijuana into the Gem State.

Legislative leadership, committee changes

Prior to the start of a new Legislature, members of the majority and minority parties selected leaders within their respective chambers.

House Republican leadership is the only one with changes after two leadership members made unsuccessful bids to move up.

House Republican caucus members voted to retain Rep. Scott Bedke, of Oakley, as House speaker, and Rep. Mike Moyle, of Star, as House majority leader. Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane and Majority Caucus John Vander Woude, both of Nampa, were unsuccessful in challenging Bedke and Moyle, respectively.

To fill the positions vacated by Crane and Vander Woude, the GOP caucus members selected Nampa Rep. Jason Monks to serve as assistant House majority leader and Hammett Rep. Megan Blanksma to serve as majority caucus chairwoman.

House Democratic caucus members retained current leadership: Mat Erpelding, of Boise, is minority leader; Ilana Rubel, of Boise, is assistant minority leader; and Elaine Smith, of Idaho Falls, is minority caucus chairwoman.

In the Senate, Republican and Democratic leadership also is unchanged. The Senate Republican leaders are President Pro Tem Brent Hill, Majority Leader Chuck Winder, Assistant Majority Leader Steve Vick and Caucus Chairman Kelly Anthon. The Democrats leadership include Minority Leader Michelle Stennett and Minority Caucus Chairwoman Maryanne Jordan.

The Senate has 10 committees and the House has 14 committees. Republicans hold all committee chairman and vice-chairman positions.

In the Senate, seven of 10 committees have new chairmen.

Key chairman changes are:

State Affairs: Patti Anne Lodge, of Huston, leaves her Judiciary and Rules chairwomanship to helm this influential committee.

Health and Welfare: Martin replaces Twin Falls’ Lee Heider, who now serves as chairman for Resources and Environment.

Judiciary and Rules: Nampa attorney Todd Lakey gets his first committee chairman assignment, succeeding Lodge.

Local Government and Taxation: Jim Rice, of Caldwell, succeeds Dan Johnson, who now co-chairs JFAC.

There were changes aplenty in House committees, too, with eight of the 14 getting new chairmen. Those are: State Affairs, Steve Harris, Meridian; Education, Lance Clow, Twin Falls; Judiciary, Rules and Administration, Tom Dayley, Boise; Energy, Environment and Technology, John Vander Woude, Nampa; Local Government, Ron Mendive, Coeur D’Alene; Business, Sage Dixon, Ponderay; and Commerce, James Holtzclaw, Meridian.

Lawmakers from Ada and Canyon counties hold 11 of the 27 House committee chairman and vice-chairman seats. In the Senate, they hold seven of 20 committee chair and vice-chairman seats.

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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named the 2017 Idaho Press Club reporter of the year. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.