The Idaho Legislature came very close to meeting its original target adjournment date of Thursday, March 24, and officially finished business last Friday, March 25. The Idaho Senate actually adjourned “sine die” on Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. after passing a much anticipated bill requesting the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare start working on a waiver to allow Idaho to tap federal Medicaid expansion funds. The Idaho House of Representatives stuck around for one additional day to vote on the Senate’s Medicaid expansion proposal, but ended up voting the bill down on a straight party-line vote, and then officially adjourned “sine die” just past noon on March 25.
With the Legislature’s adjournment, the focus for many of Idaho’s state legislators now turns to their re-election campaigns, as all 105-legislative seats are on the May 18 primary election ballot. Additionally, because of the retirement of Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones, a judicial election will also be held during the May primary. While I am a political junkie and follow the elections very closely, much of my attention and time going forward will be spent following the legislative interim committees and task forces that meet throughout the year, as well as to the state agencies’ rulemaking process and public hearings. Speaking of elections, last week Idaho Democrats held their presidential caucuses, and Bernie Sanders emerged victorious with 78 percent of the vote. Much to the pleasure of both the Idaho Republican and Idaho Democratic Parties, this year’s presidential elections received record turnouts.
State Budget: The Idaho Legislature approved a budget for the next fiscal year that includes a 6.6 percent increase in state general funds over this year’s level, for a total amount of $3.27 billion in general fund spending. Additionally, the Legislature increased the public education budget by 7.4 percent, which amounts to a $1.58 billion K-12 budget for the next fiscal year. Included in the public education budget are funds to increase teacher salaries as part of the second year of a five-year plan per the Governor’s task force recommendations. Legislators also approved $279.6 million for the higher education budget, while at the same time balancing the state budget per Idaho’s constitutional mandate.
Dominant Issues Facing the Legislature: The issue that received the most press coverage this legislative session centered around the need to help the 78,00 uninsured Idahoans who make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little for subsidized health coverage. One of Governor Otter’s signature initiatives, as outlined in his State of the State address, was proposed as an alternative to Medicaid expansion that provided basic health care services to help those in the gap. However, the Governor’s proposal failed to pass muster with Lawmakers as it was criticized 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. Despite the demise of the Governor’s proposal, the Idaho Senate renewed Medicaid expansion talks in the waning hours of the session and amended a health care bill that would direct the state to seek a federal waiver to set up an Idaho specific Medicaid expansion plan. The Idaho House stuck around an extra day to take up the proposal; however, they voted down the plan with all Republicans voting against and all Democrats voting for. Despite talks of the Governor calling a special session or issuing an executive order to seek a waiver, the Governor has refuted these claims, and will be supporting the proposal by Speaker Bedke to put together a legislative task force to study the issue further.
High-profile proposals that that the Legislature approved this year included:
- A bill allowing Idahoans to carry a concealed weapon without a permit in Idaho’s cities
- Two anti-abortion bills: one requiring women seeking an abortion in Idaho receive a list of free ultrasound providers; and one banning the practice of using aborted fetuses for research and/or profit
- Legislation reforming Idaho’s urban renewal laws that now calls for a 60 percent vote to be used for public buildings as well as allowing for the option of elections for local urban renewal boards
- A bill to allow the Bible to be taught in public schools
- A bill to ban powdered alcohol
- A bill that lifted the state ban on working with the federal government to comply with REAL ID
Of additional interest to many of our readers is that the Legislature also approved $5.5 million toward launching a public defense reform program.
Although most of the media attention of this session revolved around several of the higher-profile issues outlined above, what doesn’t get much mention is that every year the Idaho Legislature considers literally hundreds of bills, many that have a positive or negative effect on many clients of our government affairs practice. In response to this, every year I am directly involved in the lobbying of dozens of these bills, some that were included in this report and many that were not; however, the dozens of bills that I am involved in are critical to the success of our practice and to our clients.
As always, I am happy to answer any questions you may have regarding any of these bills, but a good place to start is the Idaho Legislature’s website at www.legislature.idaho.gov, which covers a full listing of all the bills that the Legislature addressed this year, as well as a full listing of the interim committees that will meet throughout the rest of the year.