The Idaho Legislature is currently in its ninth week of the 2016 legislative session, and things are in full swing as legislative leadership has set March 24 as the target adjournment date. Since we are just two months out from Idaho’s primary elections and all 105 Idaho Legislators are on the ballot this year, I expect there is incentive to wrap up the session by the targeted adjournment date. Speaking of elections, Idaho Republicans held their presidential primary election this Tuesday, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz emerged victorious with 45 percent of the vote. Donald Trump finished second with 28 percent of the vote, Marco Rubio placed third with 16.2 percent, and John Kasich finished fourth with 7.5 percent. Idaho Democrats will hold their caucuses on March 22, and the match-up between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will interesting to watch.

Because there are far too many issues being debated at the Statehouse this year to cover in this brief report, an excellent resource for tracking bills, agendas, legislator information, and much more, can be found on the Idaho Legislature’s website at www.legislature.idaho.gov.

Here are a few highlights from the Idaho Legislature to date:

Budget Setting: The Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee has been setting the State budget. Last week the committee tackled the school budget, the single largest share of the state budget, and often the most contentious. Overall, the education budget reflects a 6.8 percent increase in state general funds; however, due to a few legislative proposals not yet approved, the final budget likely will result in an approximately 7.4 percent increase. Highlights of the funding increases included in the education budget include:

  • $41.5 million for the teacher career ladder
  • $27.3 million for discretionary funds for classrooms
  • $18 million for classroom technology
  • $5 million for academic counselors

Earlier this week legislative budget writers set an 8 percent increase for higher education, and an 8.7 percent increase in the community college budget. The Committee will continue to meet for the next few weeks to set a balanced fiscal year 2016 budget as required by Idaho’s constitutional mandate.

Dominant Issues: One prominent issue that was expected to surface at the Statehouse this year, but doesn’t appear to be moving forward, is compromise language on the “Add the Words” bill. The compromise bill was intended to prevent discrimination against the LGBT community while at the same time protect the free exercise of religion.

A few other legislative proposals that appear unlikely to gain traction this year, include:

  • Medicaid expansion
  • Raising Idaho’s minimum wage
  • Restoring instant horse racing

However, there are several high-profile that do appear to be gaining momentum, such as:

  • Ban on powdered alcohol
  • Proposals addressing animal cruelty
  • Real ID compliance legislation
  • Minimum wage pre-emption legislation
  • Legislative proposals to restrict abortions in Idaho.

Primary Care Access Program: One of Governor Otter’s signature initiatives for 2016 was an alternative to Medicaid expansion through providing basic health care services to the currently 78,000 uninsured Idahoans who make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little for subsidized health coverage. This proposal was primarily a result of the conservative nature of the Idaho Legislature and its unwillingness to expand Medicaid in Idaho. Despite efforts to think outside the box, the proposal hit a serious snag by failing to identify a funding source and it may be dead for the year. As I mentioned in my last report, this issue has been fascinating to watch unfold because it is receiving criticism from both ends of the political spectrum: those who think the program doesn’t go far enough versus those who think it is just another entitlement program. If the Governor and legislative leadership decide to make an issue out of this, it may be one of the few items that causes the adjournment date to extend beyond March 24.

Urban Renewal: The 2015 Idaho Legislature tasked The Urban Renewal Interim Committee to review Idaho’s urban renewal laws and report back to the 2016 Idaho Legislature with recommendations, that are contained in House Bill 572. Even though the Interim Committee continued meeting throughout this Legislative session, which is extremely rare, they were forced to meet again this Tuesday due to additional concerns from committee members and stakeholders about the details included in the bill. In my conversations with members of the committee, it appears the committee plans to move forward with House Bill 572, and then amend the bill in the Senate to address some of these recently expressed concerns. Although it is difficult to predict the wording of the final product, the current bill includes proposed changes giving local governing bodies the option to designate urban renewal boards as elected positions, prohibiting the use of tax increment revenues for public buildings unless approved by a public vote, and clarifying that the base property value of the district must be reset if an urban renewal plan is modified.

Tax Proposals: The Legislature has been very active this year in pushing tax proposals, highlighted by legislation to cut Idaho’s personal income and corporate tax rates by a tenth of a percentage point, from 7.4 to 7.3 percent, and raise the current $100 per person grocery tax credit by $10. Additional tax proposals have included:

  • Legislation to remove Idaho’s sales tax from Girl Scout cookies and food sales by Boy Scouts
  • A bill to exempt operating property of solar energy projects and replace it with a tax on gross solar energy earnings
  • Legislation to add a permanent sales tax exemption to Idaho aircraft involved in fire suppression activities
  • Amending current Idaho code to revise the definition of which businesses have a legal nexus with the state of Idaho that requires them to collect and remit sales taxes on their sales in the state.

Because all tax legislation must originate in the House, many of these bills are either being heard this week in the relevant Senate committee, or waiting to receive a hearing by the Senate committee chairman.

Permitless Concealed Carry: On Monday, a fourth bill was introduced in the Legislature to allow Idahoans to carry concealed guns without a permit. This version of the bill is an amended version of the previous bill introduced last week in the Senate State Affairs Committee by Senator McKenzie. The new version would allow any Idahoan, excluding those already disqualified from carrying a concealed weapon, to carry a concealed weapon without a permit within city limits. Two similar bills were introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year but failed to receive a hearing; however, it appears that Senator McKenzie’s bill has the support of House and Senate Leadership and will be scheduled for a full hearing on March 14.