Gavels Down: Idaho Lawmakers Go Home

Mar 30, 2012

Idaho lawmakers wrapped up business Thursday and called an end to the 2012 legislative session.  In the Idaho House, legislators joked over the motion to adjourn.  “You’ve heard the motion, all those in favor say aye…Aye!...All those opposed say nay…Nay…The ayes appear to have it. The ayes do have it. The House stands adjourned Sine Die.”

The Senate followed suit by the evening. Lawmakers came to the capitol in Boise 81 days ago. They were prepared to argue over cash, worried about budget numbers after several down years.  But legislators quickly agreed on a more than $2.5 billion dollar budget for 2013.  That left time for issues more social than monetary.

This began to play out early in the session when Idaho’s budget-writing committee heard public testimony for the third time in its history.  About sixty people showed up.  Most people were there to address Idaho’s lack of a suicide hotline and last year’s $35-million Medicaid budget cut.  Dakotah Parsons was among them. He has autism. Parsons told lawmakers he’s in danger of losing the help he receives from the state. “Please put some of the surplus money back in the Medicaid budget so that I can have a new helper and so I can continue to learn and grow up and be a scientist.”  He pleaded, “Please help me.”

Legislators acted on both accounts.  They earmarked $160-thousand to start a state suicide hotline.  And they restored $1.5 million of the cuts to Medicaid.

Meanwhile ethics turned into a top priority for Democratic lawmakers.  They called for an independent commission run by the Idaho Attorney General’s office.  The idea went nowhere even though Sen. John McGee (R-Caldwell) resigned after allegations of sexual harassment by a staffer.  Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg) made this announcement in February.  “I immediately reassigned the attaché to another position within the Senate.  In this situation, my first priority is to ensure the safe, secure and professional work environment of our Senate employees.”  

Several weeks later, Sen. Monty Pearce (R-New Plymouth) survived an ethics complaint brought by Democrats on not disclosing his oil and gas leases earlier in the session.  The Idaho legislature ends with a few changes to Senate ethics rules.  One would make complaints secret until reviewed by a bipartisan panel.  Another tightens lawmaker disclosure of personal conflicts before committee hearings and votes.   

One of the most polarizing issues this year centered on abortion.  Right to Life of Idaho brought a bill to require a woman to get either a trans-vaginal or an abdominal ultrasound before an abortion.  Hundreds gathered, from both sides, on the Statehouse steps.  Others protested inside the Statehouse and one group even staged live ultrasounds in a committee hearing room, to an overflow crowd of people and reporters.  Supporters hoped it would persuade more women to say no to an abortion.  Opponents, like Sue Philley of Boise argued it was an intrusion into a woman’s life. “Health care decisions are best made by individuals and their medical providers, not politicians," she said.

The Senate passed the bill, but, as the spotlight intensified, it got stuck in House Committee.  As support drained away, the committee chairman told Right to Life supporters the bill wouldn’t go any further this year.  They vowed to bring it back in 2013.  

Democratic lawmakers tried twice and failed to make it illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians in Idaho.  A bill to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho's Human Rights Act couldn’t get a public hearing.  Sen. Edgar Malepeai (D-Pocatello) made this plea to fellow lawmakers.  “We owe it to those who know and love their gay family members and friends to take this issue seriously and allow them to speak.”

Republicans voted against the bill.  Another attempt to Add the Words came on the Senate Floor, but failed to gain traction there.  As they have in past years, supporters placed sticky notes around the Capitol in protest, asking the Republican-dominated legislature to “Add the Words,” and support gay rights.

As lawmakers walked the marble halls of the Statehouse, protestors camped out next door.  Literally.  Occupy Boise set up a tent city in November on the lawn of the Old Ada County Court building.

That protest caught lawmaker’s attention this session.  They crafted legislation to evict the movement, and to makes rules on how that land gets used.  Shavone Hasse of Midvale said lawmakers wanted to silence free speech.  “Shut up, says Scott Bedke!  Shut up, says the Idaho legislature!”  Rep. Thomas Loertscher (R-Iona) told her “Ma’am, ma’am you are out of order."

Hasse and other protestors were escorted out of several public hearings by Idaho State Police this session.  Occupy Boise tents continue to stay up as symbols of a 24-hour vigil. Actual camping has been banned.  A federal court will decide what happens to those tents in early summer. 

In the end, it was a budget issue that turned into the going home bill for lawmakers.  In this case: taxes.  Or rather, tax cuts.

Governor Butch Otter gets what he asked for, about $35-million in tax cuts. As soon as he signs the bill, the top individual tax rate will be lowered from 7.8 percent to 7.4 percent and the top corporate rate from 7.6 percent to 7.4 percent.  Less than a quarter of Idaho taxpayers will see a break.

Sen. Diane Bilyeu (D-Pocatello) says the state needs to use the revenue surplus to better fund schools. “I cannot see where this is going to help the Idaho economy.  We should be putting our money into education, particularly higher education.” 

Republicans say a tax cut was needed to make Idaho more attractive to businesses.  

The Governor tweeted late Thursday he was happy the Senate passed his tax cut package. He thanked legislators for helping “keep more money in Idahoans' pockets.”