BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The shortest legislative session in a decade wrapped up Thursday, leaving some lawmakers heralding a successful session and others with mixed feelings about what had been accomplished - and what had been pushed off to next year.
“In 74 days I thought we accomplished an awful lot,” Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said Friday. “I thought it was one of the smoothest sessions that I’ve ever seen.”
The GOP-dominated House and Senate came together to support a $1.37 billion public schools budget that allocated nearly twice the governor’s recommendation to public schools. The Legislature backed Otter’s justice system overhaul designed to keep prison populations down, reduce recidivism and strengthen parole supervision. And a tax incentive plan aimed at enticing more businesses to expand in Idaho also got a green light on the session’s final day.
Otter also lauded lawmakers’ decision to keep the troubled Idaho Education Network afloat through February. The school broadband network has been plagued with funding issues since the federal government yanked its share of the money amid concerns that contracts may have been illegally awarded.
But Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said money allocated to public schools still fell short of Democrats’ goals in a state that ranks near-last in education funding.
“While we’re disappointed at how much was left unfulfilled, we point to small successes such as legislation that will help us better evaluate class sizes and the $15 million going to teacher leadership premiums,” he said.
But Rusche said the legislature avoided tackling the issues “that challenge us most,” including” Medicaid expansion, discrimination laws and transportation funding - all of which were either rejected or remain unresolved as lawmakers head home.
“It was no secret the majority party put those aside because it was an election year,” Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said.
Otter had little to say Friday about efforts to update the Idaho Human Rights Act to include protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation. When the issue was blocked from even reaching a hearing by Republican leadership, the Add the Words group led by former Sen. Nicole LeFavour held protests at the statehouse that led to scores of arrests.
Otter said the protestors’ tactics hurt their own cause, and suggested the group should invite him and lawmakers to meetings in a different venue to discuss their viewpoints rather than insisting the issue be taken up at the Capitol.
“Every interest group that isn’t just plying and demanding public attention - that’s the process that they use and it’s a process that gets results,” Otter said.
When pressed on the issue, the governor declined to speak further.
“I’m not saying anything anymore; I’ve said what I’ve said. Next question,” he said.
A bill to allow retired law enforcement and those with Idaho’s enhanced conceal carry permits to bring guns onto college campuses - including into classrooms - was another issue that sparked dissension inside and outside the Statehouse walls.
Idahoans turned out in droves at public hearings to argue both sides of the issue, and a rally against the bill on the Capitol steps drew hundreds.
Heads of all eight of Idaho’s public colleges and universities opposed it, arguing it would strip them of the power to regulate their own campuses and could block recruitment efforts.
Otter cited a desire to protect Second Amendment rights when he signed that bill into law earlier in March.
Lawmakers’ votes will also hand state employees a 1 percent ongoing raise and a 1 percent bonus next year. Pay for Idaho’s elected officials also went up - a 1.5 percent ongoing wage increase for the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer and the superintendent of public instruction.
Attempts to strip elected officials of special privileges failed. Those included an exemption allowing them carry concealed guns without a permit as well as a rule protecting legislators from having paychecks garnished for state court judgments.
Both bids to take away those exceptions died in the Senate State Affairs Committee, despite other lawmakers arguing they should be held to the same standards as voters.
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said that while the lawmakers made some progress, there could be a tough road ahead if leaders continued to block bills they didn’t want to hear before allowing them to be considered and improved in the hands of the Legislature as a whole.
“We got some things done, but there’s a lot left to do and if we do it at this rate we’re going to be at it an awfully long time,” he said.
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