State Politics

Highlights, lowlights of the 2016 Idaho Legislature

At the end of a 75-day session Friday, the 2016 Idaho Legislature had introduced more than 600 pieces of legislation, including resolutions, memorials and appropriations bills. Lawmakers approved some 360, nearly a third more than last year, when the session ran to 89 days, plus a one-day special session.

They approved $3.27 billion in general fund spending, a 6.6 percent increase over what they authorized last year. By one simple measure, they authorized an average of $44 million a day.

Of course, that’s not exactly how budgeting works. Here are other highlights, and lowlights, from the session:

THE BIG THREE: EDUCATION, TAXES AND HEALTH CARE

The Legislature passed a $1.58 billion K-12 school budget with little drama. The 7.4 percent overall increase includes the second year of a five-year plan to increase teacher salaries and funds for an elementary school literacy program to help struggling readers. The budget brings discretionary school spending back to 2009 levels, before recession-driven spending cuts were imposed.

Lawmakers also approved a $279.6 million higher education budget, but without the $10 million the governor proposed to lock in tuition for incoming students for four years.

A tenth-of-a-point income tax cut passed the House early but went nowhere in the Senate. It was resurrected in slightly different form at the end of the session, bolted on to an Internet sales tax bill that never made it to a floor vote.

The most dramatic legislative action came over health care. A proposal to help 78,000 poor and uninsured Idahoans with a modest state-funded plan went nowhere, but from its demise came renewed efforts to move Idaho toward seeking a federal waiver for a customized implementation of Medicaid expansion authorized under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The debate carried into the Legislature’s final hour, when the House refused to endorse a Senate plan that would have authorized the state to seek a waiver this year.

CRIME, CRIMINAL JUSTICE, GUN RIGHTS

The Legislature unanimously backed a move to bolster the state’s public-defense system, including $5.4 million in new funding. It approved a new anti-stalking bill that allows anyone, not just relatives or those in domestic relationships, to seek court-ordered protection. And it passed new state standards for processing sexual assault evidence kits.

The Legislature approved, and the governor signed, action to allow for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit in Idaho’s cities. The move was supported by rural and small-city law enforcement officers, but opposed by urban-area police chiefs, including in Boise, Meridian and Garden City.

Lawmakers also passed a change to go easier on some underage drinkers, but banned powdered forms of alcohol. After stalling due to political and policy disagreements, the Senate approved the Attorney General’s Office budget on its last day.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

Continuing its pattern of bristling under federal mandates but imposing state mandates on local governing bodies, the Legislature passed measures to block localities from instituting bans on plastic bags or approving increases in the minimum wage. The bag ban was sponsored by a lawmaker whose constituents include a bag manufacturer and distributor.

Lawmakers also passed urban renewal reform that advocates said would make those appointed, stand-alone agencies more publicly accountable, and barred homeowners associations from changing rules on property renting, a nod to short-term rental companies such as AirBnb.

TRANSPORTATION

The Legislature lifted a ban on the state working to comply with REAL ID, the stricter federal identification requirements. The ban, which threatened to restrict air travel and access to federal facilities for Idahoans, was originally imposed over cost and document security concerns.

A move to rescind the $75 registration surcharge on hybrid vehicles imposed as part of a transportation funding bill last year failed when it was incorporated into another transportation bill.

ENVIRONMENT, WATER RIGHTS

A series of initiatives resolved issues over water rights in the East Snake River Plain Aquifer region, following on an historic deal that resolves issues between irrigators and canal companies whose water comes from springs, and farmers upstream who pump water from wells.

After delaying action on the state Fish & Game and Department of Lands budgets, the Legislature resolved a misunderstanding regarding a conservation easement in Bonner County and approved the easement and the department budgets.

HEALTH POLICY, ABORTION

Lawmakers approved a Democrat-sponsored “Right to Try” initiative to allow terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs with their doctor’s approval.

Two bills that are part of national anti-abortion efforts passed, but a third died in committee. Lawmakers banned the practice of harvest for research tissue from aborted fetuses. No such action now occurs in Idaho. It approved a requirement that women seeking abortion receive a list of free ultrasound providers — typically, facilities run by anti-abortion groups seeking to discourage abortion.

An unsuccessful measure would have banned “dilation and extraction” abortions, the most common procedure in the second trimester of a pregnancy. Abortion foes call it “dismemberment abortion.”

CONSTITUTIONAL AND CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUES

The Legislature addressed a discrepancy between state alcohol laws and free speech rights, removing a restriction on movie theaters that serve booze at showings of movies that are not pornographic but show nudity. Lawmakers approved a measure to allow use of the Bible as a reference in Idaho schools, despite an explicit prohibition in the Idaho Constitution.

Finally, advocates of adding language to the state’s human rights law to guarantee civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity have to wait another year at least — again. An expected compromise to address religious concerns failed to materialize in the Legislature.

NOTE: This story has been updated to include final bill counts, and to reflect the Legislature’s original, approved general fund appropriation for last year compared to this year, which is 6.6 percent higher.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD

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