As recently as last week, Idaho legislative leaders had set a goal of wrapping up the 2015 legislative session by March 27. However, due to setbacks with the teacher career ladder bill that resulted in the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee delaying setting the public schools budget (by far the largest spending item in the state), the session is likely to be delayed for at least a week longer. Legislative leaders have also placed transportation funding at the top of the list as an issue that must be addressed before they can adjourn for the year.

Dominant Issues Facing the Legislature: One prominent issue that already met its fate by getting voted down in a House committee was the “Add the Words” bill, which sought to bar discrimination in Idaho based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A few other issues that were expected to gain traction this year but are looking less and less likely to pass legislative muster are Medicaid Expansion, Local Option Taxes, and additional cuts to the Personal Property Tax. However, several unexpected issues have also surfaced in the Legislature, some becoming front and center on the Legislature’s agenda and in the media. There are far too many issues at play at the Statehouse to cover in this brief report, but 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 is a run-down of some of the issues that are getting the most attention at the Capitol and in the press:

  • Education: The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee was set to write the public schools budget proposal on Thursday, but that has been delayed (to next week at the earliest) due to setbacks in the teacher career ladder bill. One of the most anticipated bills of the 2015 legislative session, the teacher career ladder bill, which would add $125 million to teacher salaries over five years, received its first committee hearing earlier this week. The hearing revealed a division between stakeholders, with the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the State Board of Education, Idaho Rural Schools, and Idaho Business for Education supporting the bill, while the Idaho Education Association was the lone dissenting group, arguing that there were too many strings attached. The Idaho Legislature traditionally adjourns two weeks after the public school budget has been set by JFAC, mostly because both the House and Senate need to pass all the spending bills that JFAC approves.
  • Transportation Funding: A top priority for both legislators and the business community heading into the 2015 session included comprehensive proposals to raise funds for maintaining the state’s deteriorating road and bridges. Legislation proposed this week which has the greatest likelihood of gaining traction is one backed by the Republican House majority leadership, aiming to fill almost half of Idaho’s annual $262 million maintenance gap for transportation infrastructure. This proposal seeks to raise $104 million for transportation, mostly through a 25 percent increase in vehicle registration fees and a 20 percent fuel tax increase. With the Legislature being delayed due to setbacks in the education budget, there is definitely enough time left in the session to address this issue.
  • Civics Education: Sponsored by Senator Jim Patrick of Twin Falls, Senate Bill 1071 would require as a condition for graduation that high school students take and pass a civics test similar to the United States citizenship test. Similar efforts are underway in other states across the country, and Arizona and North Dakota have already adopted such laws. The test requirement bill has received widespread support across the state, including support from such papers as the Idaho Statesman, Idaho Press Tribune, and Coeur d’Alene Press. But opponents argue that Civics are already being taught in Idaho’s public schools and further testing is not required. Proponents point to Idaho’s historic low turnout this past general election, where only 7.8 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18-20 actually voted. Senate Bill 1071 passed the Senate earlier this week on a 29 to 6 vote and now goes to the House. (Note: the author of this newsletter has been hired by the Civics Proficiency Institute to lobby in support of this bill).
  • Contact Lenses: An issue that hasn’t received much attention in the media, but is front and center at the Capitol, is House Bill 149. Known at the Capitol as the “all lobbyists on deck” bill (including the author of this newsletter who is lobbying for this bill), House Bill 149 would prohibit contact lens manufactures from fixing prices for retailers by establishing price floors. The bill pits 1-800 Contacts against contact lens manufacturer giants, including Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, who have hired a slew of lobbyists to oppose this bill which could possibly break up their dominance of the contact lens market. The bill passed the House last week on a 40 to 29 vote and will be heard in the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee in the next week or two.
  • Instant Racing: Just two years ago the Idaho Legislature legalized wagering on historical horse races in Idaho. The original bill was lobbied primarily by the horse racing industry and was promoted as virtually identical to wagering on a live simulcast race; however, the machines installed in the past year at three Idaho locations have come under scrutiny as nothing more than slot machines, which resulted in legislation brought forward by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to outlaw such devices. The bill (Senate Bill 1011) passed the Senate fairly easily last month and was heard in the House State Affairs Committee this week. According to the Chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, the bill will likely come to a committee vote later next week.

There are many more issues that are being debated at the Legislature, including legislation addressing cannabis oil, eminent domain restrictions for local governments and urban renewal districts, the disaster surrounding the Idaho Education Network’s broadband contracts, discussions centered around Presidential primaries in Idaho, clarifications of allowable online taxes for services such as streaming for entertainment purposes, and so much more.