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Final passage

Lame session results in some decent legislation

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Though charges that the Idaho Legislature "does nothing" are more true this year than most, lawmakers have been doing something for the past four months, and Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter has signed nearly 250 bills to prove it.

They may not be the exact bills that he wants or that Unda' the Rotunda readers want, but there are new laws on the books, and Boise legislators, after a little head scratching, are pleased with some of them.

Best of the session for District 17 Sen. Elliot Werk, a Democrat: SB 1132, which he co-sponsored, provides an incentive to school districts, without costing the state extra cash, to build energy-efficient buildings.

"It was very well written," Werk said, pausing dramatically for effect.

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, a District 19 Democrat, mentioned HCR 23, a resolution establishing Equal Pay Day, April 28, and recognizing that women in Idaho are still paid less than men. But Pasley-Stuart had a hard time coming up with any other bills.

"It's really difficult because my brain has turned to mush," she said on the 106th legislative day.

Most Boise Democrats, when asked, cited bad bills they helped kill rather than bragging on new legislation.

"We've helped fight for the school district," said District 18 Rep. Branden Durst.

Durst said that Boise lawmakers fought to save $1.4 million in transportation funding for the Boise School District and the Senate amended the cut out of HB 256.

"That's the biggest thing that we did," he said. But the same day we spoke with Durst, the House printed more education-related program cuts.

Rep. Lynn Luker, a District 15 Republican, said he helped fix annexation laws with HB 143 after a bill last year confused the issue. HB 143 passed unanimously. Luker brought a bill clarifying that prosecutors in Idaho may not take bribes, but it was held in the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee.

"There's a lot of tune-up bills that made it through," Luker said.

District 18 Democrat, Rep. Phylis King, said she was frustrated that several of her bills never even got a hearing: a vote-by-mail proposal that would save the state money, a primary seatbelt law that would make the state money and a local-option tax bill that would not cost the state anything.

"We have things that will save money and be better in the long run," King said. "Good ideas are not what this body is about."

Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, also from District 18, cited her work to reform the Idaho State Tax Commission, which passed both legislative bodies unanimously, as a major effort this session. The bill, SB 1128, better defines how the Tax Commission settles disputed cases.

Kelly also cited some major defeats: A bill that would have allowed power companies in Idaho to set up funds to help low-income customers pay their bills, SB 1119, went down in the Senate by one vote. And a bill that established new financial reporting standards for elected officials, SB 1156, passed the Senate but died in the House.

Freshman Democrat and District 16 Rep. Elfreda Higgins said two of her bills—a sex offender bill and a bathroom signage bill—were idled this year because of costs.

The signage would have allowed disabled people to take someone of the opposite sex into a public restroom, but the $1,500 cost proved too much for some lawmakers.

Higgins also sits on the Garden City Council and said she may have done more policy making there.

"On the City Council, you only have to have two other people agree," she said.

District 19 Rep. Brian Cronin, also a Democrat and a freshman, managed to wrangle passage of what he calls the first piece of early childhood education legislation to pass the Legislature in many years only to have it vetoed by the governor.

Cronin attempted to reestablish the Parents as Teachers program without cost to the state. But the bill, HB 245, fell victim to Otter's veto stamp and end-of-session politics.

"I was pretty proud of the Parents as Teachers thing until it was killed," Cronin said.

But Cronin said that most Democrats in the Legislature still withheld support for Otter's road funding, arguing that school funding was more important.

In a letter to legislators also sent on the 106th legislative day, Otter cited some victories of his own: lean budgets, education reform, water rights agreements, forcing counties to pay more for indigent health care (that's not exactly how he put it) and GARVEE funding for more debt-funded road building (again, paraphrased).

Some lawmakers saw the letter from the governor as a white flag—a list of accomplishments on which to campaign, despite the failed passage of his main legislative priority.

Not mentioned by Otter nor most of the legislators we spoke with: the federal stimulus package which, though they had very little to do with, will bring millions of dollars into Idaho this year, create hundreds of jobs and pay for many desired infrastructure upgrades.

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, another freshman Democrat from District 16, said his priorities for his first term were working on local option taxing and protecting Idaho's most vulnerable citizens from the recession.

Burgoyne likened the stimulus package to the weather, as state legislators had little to do with it. But it softened the blows in a bad budget year.

"If we were dependent on our own revenue, we would have seen far more drastic cuts in social services and in education," Burgoyne said.

Though Otter complained in his non-white-flag letter about negative coverage in the media, Cronin pointed out that the media consistently names the top three issues of the session before the session even starts.

Road funding was on that list at least once, if not two or three times, and yet the session has broken 100 days without any movement on the top issues.

"It's just the height of procrastination, really," Cronin said.

As you read this, the House may have adjourned, which it was threatening to do at press time. But the Senate was also promising to call representatives back three days later to vote on some unresolved matters.

If House Bill 75 hadn't passed, banning the practice of taking out life insurance policies on other people—essentially betting on their passing—one might even consider taking out a policy on one's elected officials.