The Idaho Legislature officially convened today, as Governor Otter kicked off the 2017 Idaho legislative session with the customary State of the State address to a joint meeting of the Idaho House and Senate. Highlights of the Governor’s State of the State Address are included below, including a link to the Governor’s entire speech. It is expected that the Legislature will take up several high-profile issues this year, including education, transportation, taxes, health care, and much more. The Governor is predicting a shorter legislative session, but personally I wouldn’t be surprised if it runs long due to the complexity of the issues that are expected to be addressed this year.

Legislative Make-Up: The 2016 elections proved successful for Republicans not only nationwide, but also in Idaho where Republicans expanded on their already super-majorities in the Statehouse, picking up one seat in the Idaho State Senate and three seats in the Idaho House of Representatives. Probably the biggest surprise of the 2016 election was the defeat of long-time House minority leader, Rep. John Rusche of Lewiston. With Rusche’s defeat, Idaho Democrats elected Mat Erpelding as the new Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. Majority leadership in the House and Senate will remain the same as Speaker Scott Bedke was re-elected to a third term in the House, and Senate Pro-Tempore Brent Hill retained his post atop the Senate. Additionally, Senator Michele Stennett will continue to serve as the Minority Leader in the Senate.

State of the State Address: Governor Otter delivered a very optimistic message in today’s State of the State Address. Education was once again front and center in the Governor’s speech, highlighted by the budget recommendation to the Legislature for an ongoing allocation of $58 million to continue implementing the career ladder pay model for public school teachers. Governor Otter also recommended $5 million for training principals in low-performing schools and administrators for Idaho’s teacher evaluation process, $15 million for school districts to cover higher insurance premiums costs, $60 million towards classroom technology, $6 million for teachers’ professional development opportunities, and $5 million for college and career counseling programs.

In addition to increased education funding, Governor Otter addressed the need to expand medical residency programs in Idaho, investing and expanding Idaho’s statewide mental health system, as well cutting the base tax rate for unemployment insurance, and much more. The Governor concluded his speech stating that he is optimistic that a new Presidential administration will work with the state of Idaho to enact reforms and keep agencies in check, such as the EPA, the BLM, the Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A complete text of the Governor’s State of the State address can be found here.

The first few weeks of the Idaho legislative session consist primarily of committee hearings on the Governor’s budget recommendations as well as committee meetings on negotiated rulemaking for Idaho’s state agencies. It is rare for any legislation to be proposed, or even considered, during the first few weeks of the legislative session. 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.

Committee Budget Hearings: Because the Idaho Constitution requires the Idaho Legislature to balance the state budget, the biggest challenge legislators face every year is meeting the funding needs of public education and state agencies while still balancing the budget. Tax revenues continue to be strong for the State, and with the budget surplus mounting, legislators will have to decide whether to boost funding for programs such as education and transportation, explore tax-cuts, or put money away into a rainy-day fund to hedge against a future downturn.

Starting with a presentation from Jani Revier, the Administrator of the Governor’s Office of the Division of Financial Management, the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee will meet every morning for the next four weeks to hear budget requests and presentations from Idaho’s agencies and departments. Details of the State agency budget requests for Fiscal year 2018 can be found here.

Committee Hearings on 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 rulemaking process doesn’t receive much attention in the media, the importance of such a process can’t be understated. This is exactly why the Idaho Legislature proposed, and Idaho voters passed in 2016, an amendment to place this authority in the State Constitution. In addition to budget hearings and presentations, the first few weeks of the Idaho legislative session will revolve around legislative 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 before they 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.