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Idaho Lawmakers Hold To Conservative Values In 2016 Session

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
The Idaho State House is reflected in the windows of the Joe R. Williams Office Building on the closing day of the 2016 legislative session.

The Idaho Legislature has wrapped up for the year without doing anything to address 2016’s highest profile issue: expanding health care coverage for Idaho’s working poor.

Republican Speaker of the Idaho House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, banged the gavel to bring the eleven week long 2016 session to a close. On the final day, the headline was the House’s rejection of a take-it-or-leave-it proposal on Medicaid expansion sent over by the Senate. Bedke said he plans to appoint a bipartisan work group to craft a solution before next session.

“I don’t want to pre-suppose an outcome, but I think this is fitting and proper that the legislative branch take this up, and not the executive branch,” Bedke said. “You’ll see me pursuing that. You’ll see me reach out to the Senate to do that.”

Bedke was happier to talk about the session’s winners. Both political parties put public schools and community colleges in the winner category. Public school funding was boosted by 7.4 percent in the coming year.

“There’s that clear commitment to the K-12 system,” Bedke enthused as he described various initiative to improve reading achievement at the early grades and hike teacher pay.

Irrigators in Idaho’s breadbasket in the southern and eastern parts of the state belong there too because the legislature endorsed and funded a major water settlement. And gun owners saw permitless concealed carry rights expanded.

In the disappointments column for the House Republican leadership was a proposed election year tax cut. The Senate and Idaho’s governor showed little interest in reducing personal income tax rates by one-tenth of 1 percent.

Gay and lesbian rights advocates worked behind the scenes to get sexual orientation added as a protected class under the state’s anti-discrimination statutes. Last year, this same cause was pushed publicly and unsuccessfully with frequent demonstrations and packed hearings under the banner “Add the Words.” This year’s much quieter and subtler diplomacy yielded the same fruitless result.

Drivers of hybrid gas-electric cars such as the popular Toyota Prius came tantalizingly close, but in the end ran out of gas in an effort to repeal an extra registration fee of $75 on hybrid vehicles. The hybrid car owners argued that the extra fee was inequitable because some purely gasoline-powered cars now get the same -- or better -- gas mileage. The group Idaho Hybrid Owners said the 2015 legislature imposed the extra $75 fee only on hybrids because the lawmakers thought these fuel-efficient vehicles were not paying their fair share in gas taxes to cover road construction and repairs.

A variety of hot-button social issues met varied fates. The legislature passed a measure declaring that the Bible could be used “for reference purposes” in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union is asking Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter to veto that measure.

Abortion came up in several contexts. On Thursday, the Idaho House voted 54-14 to send to the governor a ban on the sale or distribution of fetal tissues or organs from aborted fetuses. That measure was inspired by last year’s controversy involving an allegedly illegal undercover video recording of Planned Parenthood officials. Idaho lawmakers acknowledged during the heated debate on the bill that the covered activities do not occur in their state.

Also awaiting a decision from the governor is a measure to require abortion clinics to make available to women seeking abortions a list of health care providers who would offer a free ultrasound to show the beating heart of the fetus.

“The social issues at the end of the session are an example of (Republicans) playing politics, running bills simply so they can pad their resumes for reelection and not doing much for the average worker or the average children of Idaho,” Democratic Assistant Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, said.

Erpelding sponsored a measure to increase Idaho’s minimum wage in two stages from the current $7.25 to $9.25 per hour. His proposal was not given a hearing by the legislature’s Republican majority.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.