News » Features

An A to Z Guide to the Idaho Legislature

Everything you need to sound at least as with it as the average freshman lawmaker


If by chance you find yourself overwhelmed by the scope, scale or just plain confusion that surrounds the Idaho Legislature, remember one thing: It's your business. Everything from the offices lawmakers sit in to the agencies they try to change comes from you. Or, more specifically, your tax dollars. And your votes. Oh, and that big fancy building they hang out in downtown? That's yours, too. So when they start kibitzing over the cost and direction of the statehouse renovation project, think of them as contractors debating over your house's remodel.

At the risk of overloading readers in this, the Legislature's first week back in office, we offer an A to Z guide to the Idaho Legislature.

A is for Abortion

Idaho's majority Republicans will make a more concerted effort to require parental consent before a minor can get an abortion. Bills to do just that have come and gone through the Legislature before, with little luck. While some have passed, they tend to get shot down by the court system as unconstitutional. Leaders in the House and Senate say they've got it figured out this year, and will try again.

B is For Budget

The only thing lawmakers are Constitutionally required to do is pass a working budget for state government. On Monday Gov. Butch Otter presented a $2.7 billion budget with lots of one-time spending, including funds for more prison beds, raises for state workers and more cash for schools.

C is for community colleges

For people who need adult education, workplace training, or just plain want to expand their horizons, community colleges are the place. Lawmakers want them. Businesses want them. Some of Idaho's university leaders want them. But paying for them is a pain, and you might expect to see legislators balk at the cost of creating a statewide system. Instead, look for lawmakers to create small levers to help local communities tax themselves to create new schools.

D is for Drug Czar

When Lt. Gov. Jim Risch created the $98,000-per-year position of an Idaho Drug Czar and handed it to Boise City Councilor Jim Tibbs, he found fans with plenty of policymakers, who liked the idea of a one-stop-shop for state drug policy. But Otter isn't having it; Monday, he said he'll name former campaign manager (and ousted former state representative) Debbie Field to run anti-drug programs, but staff say they're not giving her false royalty; the "czar" title is history.

E is for Energy Plan

Democrats hope a new Idaho energy plan will give the state more authority over where to place large energy projects like new power plants and power lines, but they've wanted that for years. A plan should emerge this month.

F is for Fairness

Hey, Republicans rule the roost in the Statehouse, and they're unlikely to let minority Democrats forget it. When they were denied a third seat on the all-powerful Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (the folks with the purse strings) they protested, then walked out of the House chambers. Because the Democatic caucus in the House jumped to 19 this year by gaining new seats, the Dems expected a third seat on that committee. New House Speaker Lawerence Denney said "fuggedaboudit" and, when Democrats left, continued with business like nothing had happened.

G is For Grocery tax credit

Yes, you're still paying a 6 percent sales tax on groceries, but Republicans say they're ready to get rid of it, somehow. Some, like Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis would prefer to get rid of it altogether. But even Davis agrees with Otter, who would prefer to see Idahoans get an increased grocery tax credit instead. Idaho is one of six states that give residents a grocery tax credit intended to offset some of the tax costs on a family's grocery bill. Residents receive the grocery credit after filing their state income tax form, but not everyone qualifies. Otter's plan would hike the credit for lower-income residents to $90 per person.

H is for Hearings

Pay attention to the news and the Legislature's Web site,, and you'll find out that lawmakers hold public hearings on bills as they come and go before committees. These are the public's best chances for giving their two cents on an issue before it goes for a vote on the House or Senate floor. Show up with a short message you want to give lawmakers, and you'll be surprised to find that some of them will actually listen.

I is for IACI

The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry has gone through an awful lot of changes in the past year, including losing their all-seeing leader Steve Ahrens. But they've always been high rollers at the Statehouse, and you can assume they'll be back in force this year, led by new president (and former bigwig with the Idaho Association of Realtors) Alex LaBeau.

J is for Jaquet

Someone's got to herd them cats, and for the minority Democrats in the House of Representatives, it's Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, from Ketchum. Jaquet leads her party to battle against Republicans without losing her sense of humor, year in and year out. Now she's got new friends: Idaho voters sent her six more House Democrats this year.

K is for Ken Roberts

Rep. Ken Roberts, a McCall Republican, got a new power position this year, as House GOP Caucus chairman. He's dogged on tax issues and was a major mover in the summertime special session to shift taxes from property to sales. Watch him closely when those matters come up for debate.

L is for Local-Option Tax

As a way to bring in more money for transit or community colleges, many local governments say they'd like to see local option taxes get ratified by the Legislature. Otter said he's willing to lower the supermajority vote threshhold to 60 percent from two-thirds on the colleges question.

M is for Mail-in Ballots

Idaho county clerks are pushing to move to a mail-in ballot system this year, to help increase voter turnout at elections. Now other nonprofit groups are taking a closer look at the notion. Oregon and Washington already use vote-by-mail systems, with some success. Look for a bill or two on this issue to come to the fore.

N is for Nursing education

It's commonly understood that Idaho has a serious shortage of nurses. Back when he was governor, Risch said he wanted to spend as much as $37 million on improving nursing education in Idaho, building new facilities and drawing in more educators. Otter agrees.

O is for Otter

Yep, there's a new guy in the second floor of the Idaho Statehouse. But don't expect C.L. "Butch" Otter to act like a rookie. He was the longest-serving lieutenant governor in Idaho history when he left that job for Congress in 2001. He's an old-school Republican, a limited-government fan and a gentleman rancher with millions of dollars in the bank. Now he's got his best, and maybe last, crack at taking his home state where he wants it to go. Don't look for fireworks (his modest budget should tell you something), but do expect to see that Reaganesque grin to show up on newspaper front pages and television screens often.

P is for Power

Who's got it? How do they use it? Butch Otter has the power to say "yes" or "no" to the bills that lawmakers send him. Committee leaders in the Legislature have the power to say which bills live or die. Rank-and-file lawmakers have the power to write law as they see fit.

And you have the power to vote just about any of them out of office in a couple of years.

Q is for Quick Session

If you're lucky, the Legislature will get its work done by March 16, a deadline imposed by some of the leaders in the House and Senate. The other deadline is April 1, when renovation on the Statehouse is set to begin. Still, lawmakers love to talk. Do not, repeat, do not hold your breath while you wait for them to leave.

R is for Reporters

Down in the dingy basement of the Statehouse, a dusty warren of a room holds the writers and reporters for most of Idaho's newspapers, including the one you're holding now. Whether it's the herd of scribblers for the Idaho Statesman (on any given day you might see six or seven of them roaming the Capitol) or the cool autonomy of the Associated Press reporters, the media love a show, and sometimes the Legislature gives them one. Camera crews follow the big stories for television, and radio has a few, from KBOI 580 AM to Boise State Radio's public broadcasting. Look for BW's own Nathaniel Hoffman to be prowling the marble floors, or reach him at

S is for Shooter Bull

Idaho is one of very few states that allow so-called "canned hunts" to take place in its borders, which has inspired an industry catering to the breeding of so-called "shooter bull" elk that look good on trophy walls but never really leave the confines of their ranches. When Teton Valley shooter bull rancher Rex Rammell had problems with farmed elk escaping from his property, it highlighted Idaho's lonely support for what many wildlife enthusiasts say is an outrageous practice. Still, the 80-some domestic elk farms in Idaho bring millions of dollars into the state's economy. The industry can, at the very least, expect some changes from the Legislature.

T is for Transit

Because everyone from Mayor Dave Bieter to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce wants to increase Boise's public transportation picture (see L, above) and because growth is pushing existing transit options to their limits, Ada County's lawmakers might be pushing for ways to improve funding and infrastructure for buses, trains and other commuter options.

U is for Underground wings of Statehouse

To help accommodate a growing Legislature, lawmakers developed a plan to build two underground wings, to make more space for offices and hearing rooms while maintaining the general old-fashioned look of the state Capitol building. Otter has said time and again that he opposes the idea, and on Monday found a sneaky way to do it: he yanked funding for the new wings from his budget proposal. Still, the Legislature has already spoken on this one; budget leaders say that horse left the stable years ago, and you might expect a fight over this issue.

V is for Volunteers

Idaho has a citizen's legislature; aside from stipends and other benefits they get from the state, you don't become a legislator because you want to make money. This has created a preponderance of retirees at the Statehouse, but it has also drawn many non-career politicians who have a real life, and a real job, outside the Capitol.

W is for Water

Speaker Denney has made it clear he thinks water, and the way Idahoans use, refresh and supply water to various users will be big subjects this session. Otter, too, says he wants to stop the kibitzing between the various users (and their lawyers) and come up with a compromise over water rights and the recharge of the Eastern Snake River Plain aquifer. With the Idaho Supreme Court set to rule on the subject, expect that decision to drive the momentum on this issue.

X is for X-Factor: Jim Risch

He was a go-get-'em governor for a tantalizing seven months, and now he's moved back down the totem pole to lieutenant governor. But that puts Risch back where he learned most of his political lessons: running the Idaho State Senate. Risch has plenty of ideas about how to make things happen in state government, and a new window into the governor's office.

Y is for Ysursa

Somebody's got to keep track of all the lobbyists lurking in the Statehouse, and that job falls to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. His office registers the many lobbyists who pace the halls, looking for friends and influence.

Z is for Jared Zabransky

We had to get a Broncos reference in here somewhere. Otter did so in his inaugural and State of the State speeches himself. The outgoing star quarterback is likely to get his name invoked in floor speeches at some point in this year's session. Hook and Lateral anyone?