As the Idaho Legislature is wrapping up the fourth week of the 2015 session, things appear to have ramped up early this year, as opposed to the traditional slow start witnessed during most legislative sessions. Typically, the first few weeks of the Idaho legislative session consist of committee hearings on the Governor’s budget recommendations and agency negotiated rulemaking, a rather dull yet important process. This year, however, has seen legislation being introduced and large crowds gathering at the Capitol for committee hearings, highlighted by the “add the words” bill that I will elaborate on below. Most experts at the Capitol expect this year to be a longer than normal session featuring many issues that have been put off for several years due to a host of reasons, primarily the fact that they are controversial and include unpopular ideas, such as raising taxes or confirming to federal programs, both of which are strongly opposed by Idaho’s conservative legislative body. This legislative report outlines some of the more high profile issues at the Legislature, including those that are sure to dominate the remainder of the legislative session. In addition, a great resource for tracking bills, agendas, legislator information, and much more, can be found on the Idaho Legislature’s website at www.legislature.idaho.gov.

JFAC Budget Hearings: Budget requests and presentations from state agencies and departments to the Legislature’s Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee are a constant of the first four weeks of every legislative session. As is tradition, the first presentation is always given by the Administrator of the Governor’s Office of the Division of Financial Management. Jani Revier, the Administrator of DFM, presented Governor Otter’s budget recommendation for the 2016 fiscal year, and her presentation can be found here.

Administrative Rules: Idaho is one of only three states in the nation that provides the Legislature with the authority to amend, modify, or reject agency and department rules. Although the negotiated rule-making process doesn’t receive much attention in the media, the importance of such a process can’t be understated. The first four weeks of the 2015 Idaho legislative session have consisted of relevant committees holding public hearings on administrative rules that have the force and effect of law and as such are subject to a comprehensive process that includes review and approval by the Idaho Legislature in order to become final and enforceable. Best defined, a rule means the whole or part of an agency statement of general applicability that interprets or prescribes law or policy or the procedure or practice requirements of an agency.

Dominant Issues Facing the Legislature: A few issues I predicted would surface during the 2015 session have already been brought to fruition in the forms of proposed legislation. A few other unexpected, and possibly controversial, issues have also surfaced at the Capitol. Here is a quick run-down of what is getting a fair amount of attention at the Capitol and in the press:

  • Idaho Human Rights Act: An issue that has been many years in the making was finally granted a hearing this year in the form of House Bill 2. The bill, commonly known by its supporters and in the media as the “add the words bill,” would have barred discrimination in Idaho based on sexual orientation and gender identity. After three days of committee hearings and 22 hours of emotion-filled testimony from the audience, the committee voted 13-4 to kill the legislation in committee. Proponents of the bill argued that civic rights protections should be extended to homosexual and transgender Idahoans, whereas opponents of the bill argued that it didn’t adequately protect religious freedom. It is very unlikely that the bill will get another hearing this year; however, there has been talk of bringing back potential compromise legislation next year.
  • Medicaid Expansion: Members of Governor Otter’s task force presented to Idaho Legislators this week on their panel’s recommendations to expand Medicaid to cover 103,000 of Idaho’s poorest adults. The expansion of Medicaid was included under the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, and would provide for the federal government to pick up 100 percent of the costs associated with the program, dropping to 90 percent after 10 years. Supporters of Medicaid expansion argue that the state could save millions of dollars every year, while opponents worry that the federal government won’t continue financing the program, which would inevitably leave the state on the hook. The Legislature has chosen not to expand Medicaid the past two years, but I expect to see legislation introduced in the near future with the backing of many in the health care industry, leading to a most intense debate in the Legislature.
  • Eminent Domain Restrictions: Three bills have already been brought forward in committee aiming to restrict the practice of eminent domain in Idaho. Senate Bill 1039, sponsored by Senator Chuck Winder, would take away the adjudicate responsibility from the judge to determine all issues except for just compensation, which is currently the only role of the jury in such proceedings. Senate Bill 1044, sponsored by Senator Jim Guthrie, would remove the ability to use eminent domain for greenways, such as the Boise Greenbelt. House Bill 18 is sponsored by Representative Steve Harris, and it would remove the ability of Urban Renewal Districts to use eminent domain if the members of the board weren’t elected by a vote of the people. This is probably the most active I have seen the Legislature in many years regarding taking action on eminent domain issues.
  • Transportation Funding: One of the most talked about issues at the Legislature this year is transportation funding, specifically how to raise funds for maintaining the state’s deteriorating road and bridges. Studies have shown that funding for Idaho’s roads and bridges has a big-ticket maintenance backlog, as nearly 400 Idaho bridges were built before World War II, and over 700 bridges have deteriorated to the point of being labeled deficient. Supporters of increased transportation funding are led by a coalition of many in Idaho’s business community, who argue that it is not only a matter of public safety to maintain Idaho’s investment in its roads and bridges, but also a key part of growing Idaho’s economy; however, many in Idaho’s Republican majority oppose the idea of raising taxes and are looking for other ways to fund transportation without raising taxes.
  • Local Option Sales Tax: An effort led by Senator Chuck Winder, with support from many in the business community, including Chambers of Commerce and the Association of Idaho Cities, would allow cities and counties to tax themselves after a public vote to pay for projects such as infrastructure enhancements, parks or other public amenities. Legislation has not surfaced this year, and it might not be until 2016 that we see something actually proposed in committee; however, the bill does face an uphill battle due to the hesitancy of the Republican-dominated Legislature to support any form of tax increase in the state.
  • Personal Property Tax: The strong lobby of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry would like to see the personal property tax eliminated in its entirety this legislative session. One component that could make this tough to pass a bill this year is the fact that in 2013 the Idaho Legislature exempted Idaho businesses from paying up to $100,000 in personal property taxes. Additionally, this year local governments who rely heavily on the tax dollars for their revenue have found an ally in Senate Local Government committee chairman, Senator Jeff Siddoway, who refuses to hear any legislation that reduces tax unless the base teacher salary in Idaho is pushed up to $40,000 per year. The question moving forward is whether the Legislature will fund teacher salaries enough for Chairman Siddoway to give this bill and other tax relief bills a hearing.

Other high-profile issues that I expect to surface this session include business and individual income tax cuts, requiring personal financial disclosure for lawmakers and state officials, reforms to the oversight of state contracts, and discussions centered around Presidential primaries in Idaho.