Idaho lawmakers get down to the nuts and bolts

Spence

BOISE — Idaho lawmakers didn’t miss a beat Tuesday, picking up right where they left off in March before a COVID-19 outbreak prompted a two-week recess.

House Republicans celebrated their return by killing another 2022 budget bill. Senate Republicans approved a fetal heartbeat abortion ban on a party-line vote.

The House also killed legislation raising the smoking age to 21, and the Senate narrowly killed a proposal that allowed a small amount of state funding to be used for private or religious schools. See related story on Page 3A.

Here are some details on a busy day back in the Statehouse saddle:

NOT ON OUR WATCH — The Senate kicked things off Tuesday by debating Senate Bill 1183, which makes it a felony for health care providers to conduct abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

The legislation includes exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger, or in the case of incest or rape. However, a police report would be required in the latter situation.

Critics noted that fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, before most women even realize they’re pregnant. Similar bills in other states have either been challenged in court because they unduly restrict a woman’s access to an abortion.

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, who works with domestic abuse and rape victims, also said the requirement to obtain a police report would likely increase the trauma rape victims are already going through.

Victims typically don’t report the assault right away, she said. Once they do, it may take months to resolve the case — and while the investigation is still active, it’s difficult to get an official copy of the police report. All these delays could make it impossible for the woman to get an abortion, if that’s what she decides.

The bill “puts up a barrier rape victims can’t cross,” Wintrow said. “That’s a problem.”

Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, reluctantly supported the bill, even though it included exceptions that would allow providers to perform abortions.

“If I had my choice, the taking of an unborn life at any stage, for any reason, would be illegal,” she said. “But until that day comes — until the Idaho Legislature takes a stand that life begins at conception, and that no matter how they’re conceived, every human being is formed perfectly in the image of God — then I’ll support bills like this.”

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, said one of the most basic responsibilities lawmakers are charged with is to protect human life — something SB 1183 accomplishes.

“This is an important policy decision for the state,” she said.

The measure now moves to the House for further action.

UP IN SMOKE — While the Senate was debating SB 1183, the House took up Senate Bill 1087, which prohibited anyone younger than the age of 21 from purchasing, using or possessing tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, noted that federal law already sets the legal age for tobacco products at 21. SB 1087 simply changes state law to comply with that requirement.

However, the measure also prohibits local governments from adopting regulations or tobacco product taxes that are more stringent than the state’s.

The preemption clause was a concern for some opponents, but the age limit seemed to be a bigger issue. The bill failed on a 40-28 vote; every representative from north central Idaho opposed the bill, except for Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee.

DOWN IN FLAMES — House Republicans continued to take a skeptical view of federal coronavirus relief funds, killing the fiscal 2022 Division of Welfare budget on a 42-27 vote.

The appropriations bill included a $65,600, or 0.2 percent, reduction in state support for the division. However, the overall budget was up $33.6 million, or 20 percent, compared to the current year. That was entirely because of $33.8 million in federal coronavirus relief funding.

There was little debate on the budget, but some lawmakers asked about the federal relief funds. The intent of the money is to help support child care services and providers who suffered financial harm during the coronavirus pandemic, because so many parents stayed home with their kids.

As with the above-mentioned tobacco bill, Troy was the only north central Idaho representative to support the legislation.

A BRIDGE TOO FAR — The Senate killed a much-amended “Strong Students” education grant bill on an 18-16 vote.

The latest version of the House Bill 294 used $30 million in one-time federal funding and $10 million in ongoing state support to provide grants for low-income families to use for qualified educational expenses.

Lawmakers debated the measure for nearly two hours. Given that “qualified education expenses” includes tuition or fees for private schools, several felt the legislation violated Idaho’s constitutional prohibition against using public funds for private or religious schools.

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, also noted that the bill lacked any accountability provisions.

“We’re going to commit (tens of millions of dollars) to do this, without any measurable outcomes or expectations,” he said. “I have trouble with that, and so do the people I represent. This is an ongoing expenditure, without any measurable outcomes.”

Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, said the proposal would harm rural public schools, which already suffer from inadequate funding.

“I fear this bill makes the situation worse by diverting precious education dollars to private schools,” he said.

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, also opposed the legislation, in part because the fiscal note doesn’t accurately reflect the amended version of the bill.

“It’s a bridge too far for me,” he said.

PROGRESS REPORT — If for no reason other than its length, the 2021 legislative session could be one for the record books.

Tuesday was the 86th day of the session. That tally includes weekends, as well as the two-week delay caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Consequently, if lawmakers continue to meet past April 15, it will be the third-longest session in state history.

Things would have to go seriously awry if they want to make the top two. That would mean dragging things out until May, as happened in 2003 and again in 2009, when the sessions lasted 118 and 117 days, respectively.

Only three other sessions have lasted longer than 90 days. That includes the 95-day 2019 session, which is currently tied for the third-longest ever.

As of Friday, April 16, the 2021 session would enter its 96th day and grab a spot on the podium.

That’s a record Idaho’s citizen legislators would likely be loathe to set. However, they’ll have to work hard to avoid it.

When lawmakers hurriedly recessed the 2021 session on March 19, a total of 145 bills had passed both the House and Senate. Another 200 bills had passed one chamber and were awaiting action in the other.

Some of those measures have been referred to House or Senate committees and are unlikely to get hearings. Nevertheless, just looking at legislation that’s made it through committee to the House or Senate floor, more than 150 bills are still alive and remain to be addressed.

That doesn’t include a multitude of other bills that haven’t passed either chamber, but that could still be taken up. It also doesn’t include new bills that are introduced. A revised version of the above-mentioned Division of Welfare budget, for example, will have to be written and go through both chambers.

Three new transportation funding measures were also introduced Tuesday, along with a resolution honoring longtime Legislative Services Office Director Eric Milstead, who is retiring this year.

Although lawmakers can mow through bills by the dozen when they’re in the latter stages of a session, it’s going to take an epic sprint to avoid taking a bronze medal for the length of this year’s session.


Spence covers politics for the Lewiston Tribune. He may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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