- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho’s legislative interim committees are close to wrapping up their work after spending the summer reviewing the state’s hot-button topics.

The work can be tedious, but the studies conducted between legislative sessions are expected to influence the 2016 Idaho Legislature with the submission of a wide range of bills that have already been thoroughly vetted.

Many of the interim committees still have not finalized their recommendations, but almost all are hopeful they will have something to submit come January.

Here’s a list of what lawmakers worked on over the summer:

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PUBLIC DEFENSE REFORM

Lawmakers have been slow to make significant changes to the state’s criminal justice system despite years of warnings from critics that it fails to fairly represent low-income defendants.

That might change now that the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho dropped a lawsuit against the state earlier this year with hopes of overhauling the public defender system.

The Public Defense Interim Committee is planning to introduce a bill, but so far lawmakers have not agreed on anything. Lawmakers on the panel are more supportive of a grant program where counties that meet certain standards could get a portion of state money.

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CONTRACTING LAWS

So far, this group has approved only two out of seven possible recommendations on how to update the state’s 40-year-old contracting laws.

Idaho’s contract bidding and selection process became one of the most discussed topics during the previous legislative session after a judge threw out a $60 million contract to provide broadband in public schools.

Suggested changes include providing penalties for unethical behavior, requiring uniform training standards for state employees involved in the procurement process, and mandating annual reporting on high-risk contracts. The group will meet in January to finalize its recommendations.

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BROADBAND IN SCHOOLS

After the collapse of the statewide broadband program, this committee has agreed that the state should not rebuild the previous one-size-fits-all model.

Instead, lawmakers are leaning toward allowing school districts to manage their own contracts with state assistance. But the committee is still reviewing details of their proposal.

The broadband program - dissolved after a court deemed the contract illegal - helped facilitate students who take dual-credit classes with video teleconference equipment.

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URBAN RENEWAL

Committee members are leaning toward banning the use of urban renewal funds to bankroll public building construction projects. Details of the proposed amendment still need to be finalized because lawmakers are still torn if libraries should be exempt from the ban or if the ban should include a public vote option.

If passed, the change would be a huge hit to communities that have used urban renewal agencies to build or improve libraries, police stations and city halls.

Urban renewal agencies collect taxes from improvements in their municipal districts and use that money to attract and finance new projects, particularly in blighted areas.

Municipalities have argued that the agencies lure major businesses to Idaho, while critics say the boards have little oversight and take tax dollars away from key projects.

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TAX WORKING GROUP

Not all interim committees end in action. This 12-member panel spent the summer scrutinizing the state’s complicated tax code, but they adjourned with no consensus on what - if any - tax changes should be made during the session.

Some lawmakers said they were disappointed the group couldn’t decide on some sort of long-term strategy. Others pointed out that the group was tasked only with looking over the laws for possible changes and not finding fixes for a system that wasn’t clearly broken.

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