By KEITH COUSINS Staff Writer
COEUR d’ALENE — At 80 days, the 2017 session of the Idaho Legislature was neither the longest nor the shortest.
Was it one of the best? One of the worst? That’s harder to say.
Prior to the session, health care, education and transportation were expected by many to be the focal points. Legislators, who are only in session part-time in accordance with Idaho’s constitution, attempted to tackle those topics and more in 2017.
Some of their efforts ended in disappointment, others in triumph.
The Press contacted Kootenai County’s nine state legislators and asked them: What pieces of legislation did you work on, introduce or co-sponsor this session? How do you feel about the session overall? Anything stick out in your mind as far as achievements or disappointments? What will you be working on between sessions?
The answers to those questions, using direct quotes from the legislators as much as possible in an effort to allow them to speak directly with the voting public, follow.
• Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls (Second Term)
Legislation: During the session, Cheatham worked to sponsor or co-sponsor three different bills, which he described for The Press.
H149 — Authorizes the use of a concealed weapons permit or an enhanced license to carry concealed weapons as acceptable voter identification that may be presented at the polls.
H93 — Allows any person who is a current member of the U.S. armed forces to carry a concealed handgun in Idaho.
SCR105 — Authorizes the State Board of Education to enter into an agreement with the Idaho State Building Authority to finance construction of the Idaho Cybercore Integration Center and the Idaho Collaborative Computing Center for Idaho National Laboratory (INL). INL is a leader in nuclear research and technology and cyber security and is a nationally recognized partner in securing the United States. The new facilities will provide opportunities for Idaho's research universities to carry out their mission to engage Idaho students in leading-edge education, research, and intern activities and facilitate economic development for Idaho as they work with the Idaho National Laboratory to address the nation's cyber-security and advanced computing priorities.”
Achievements/Disappointments: “We passed 17 key pieces of legislation in the House supporting student education which is extremely beneficial to our economy and our students entering the workforce. I am a supporter of tax relief, including corporate, personal income and the elimination of the grocery tax.”
Interim: “Between sessions, I plan on working on some legislation regarding my committees. I was recently assigned to an educational subcommittee on early education.”
• Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene (First Term)
Legislation: “One piece of legislation that I was involved with and carried on the House floor was a bill to create a Rural Schools Support Network pilot program in Idaho that would have provided funding to building a program that would allow rural schools to partner on shared services and contracts to better meet the needs of rural schools and students.”
“While the Rural Schools Support Network legislation narrowly passed the House, the legislation did not receive a hearing in the Senate. I am also working on several other pieces of legislation related to child abuse reporting and promoting healthy families in Idaho that did not gain traction this session, but I feel will have more success in the future.”
Achievements/Disappointments: “There were many successes from this session. In addition to the education-related initiatives I mentioned above we made some significant headway in putting together a comprehensive transportation related package that will help to rebuild and grow our infrastructure without raising taxes.”
“We also authorized the purchase of the HP campus in Boise which will allow the state to consolidate services at a single location and will save the state significant resources in lease expenses over the next 20 years.”
Interim: “I had several pieces of legislation I was working on this session related to child abuse reporting and healthy families that were not brought this session, but I plan to work on them over the next year.”
“I will also continue to work on education-related issues in the broad sense with a focus on: charter school reform, rural school support, transferability of credits between higher-education institutions, and teacher recruitment and retention.”
“I have also been appointed to the State Hospital North board and I anticipate I will become more involved with and interested in mental health related issues in Idaho and how we meet the needs of Idahoans that may struggle with mental health issues.”
• Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens (Fourth Term)
Legislation: “I sponsored Senate Bill 1069. This legislation ensures that Idahoans have a choice of keeping their current driver's license or getting a Real ID compliant driver's license when that opportunity comes.”
“I was also a primary co-sponsor on House Bill 67 as amended in the Senate to eliminate the sales tax on groceries.”
“I am very pleased that both these pieces of legislation passed. SB1069 has already been signed by the governor; HB67 is still awaiting his signature.”
Achievements/Disappointments: “My big disappointment of the session will be if the governor vetoes HB67. We have had a significant increase in revenue to the state over the last couple of years and I believe it is the perfect opportunity for tax relief.”
Interim: “I will be working on tax and resource issues.”
“One of the big concerns in the resource area is a quagga mussel infestation. They will have a devastating effect on the economy of North Idaho if they make their way into our lakes.”
“In the tax area I will continue to work towards a flat tax for Idaho's income tax and property tax reform.”
• Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene (Second Term)
Legislation: “There has been some media coverage of my school board election bill to change the date from May to the November general election so more voters of all political flavors will participate in this historically forgotten, yet very important, election. We didn’t succeed this session, but are working for next year.”
“On health care issues, I strongly supported the bill to create a type of 4-year pilot program to provide 15,000 of the chronically ill in the ‘gap’ access to direct payment primary care, with a sub group of 250 of the most severe getting additional, focused health education. It did not pass this year. Another health-related bill I supported, which created Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) as an option for state employees, did pass the Legislature but was vetoed by the governor.”
“A wonderful bright spot was a bill brought forward by a group of parents with severely disabled children caused by Cytomegalovirus (CMV) while the baby was in-utero. They were not aware of CMV prior to having their affected children, nor are most people. Their bill asked the Department of Health and Welfare to provide educational materials to all pregnancy and early childhood related offices and daycares, to alert new parents to prevention and detection methods. Funding was originally promised by the Dept. of Health and Welfare, but was suddenly cut to almost nothing, so we on the Senate Health & Welfare Committee worked with the House committee and JFAC, and increased the funding to a more realistic level. The parents were thrilled and this important prevention information will soon be available to the public.”
Achievements/Disappointments: “In my opinion, every session seems to have its own temperament, and this year was one of standing up for the little guy. Grocery tax repeal is a prime example. So was the Health Savings Account bill for state employees that was vetoed. My school board election bill to improve voter turnout was part of this theme.”
“We also had a big push by parents to remind the Department of Health and Welfare that parents may opt their children out of vaccinations with any written form. On JFAC, our working group found savings in other budgets so we could add two new Foster Care social workers this year.”
Interim: “The Health Care Listening Forum we had to cancel due to a blizzard in February has been rescheduled for Saturday, May 13. I’m eager to hear what ideas and concerns people in our community have regarding health care in Idaho.”
“I’m again on the legislative interim committee on Foster Care, which has been renewed for another year, and have been asked to be part of the Office of Drug Policy’s retreat to address opioid misuse and overdose deaths in Idaho. It will be a busy interim.”
• Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene (Third Term)
Legislation: Nonini told The Press he worked on the following four pieces of legislation as either a sponsor or co-sponsor, and described each of the bills.
“STEM School Designation — the purpose is to recognize those public education STEM schools that are doing the very best and to also provide a footprint or roadmap to those other public schools to assist them in obtaining the STEM designation.”
“I co-sponsored the removal of sales tax on food items purchased at grocery stores and the repeal of the grocery tax credit. It has been an issue I've worked on for many years and it is in the governor’s office awaiting his decision.”
“I sponsored the Pay for Success legislation to help pre-school children and elementary grades 1 through 3 to obtain better reading skills through issuing private sector contracts that would carry all the risk if those private sector providers don't measure up to the metrics set by the state.”
“I worked on invasive species legislation to help keep invasive species out of Idaho waterways. It establishes the position of Administrator of Invasive Species in the Office of the Governor, puts into statute the Idaho Invasive Species Council and provides for the coordination of policies and programs related to invasive species.”
Achievements/Disappointments: “I feel the session was a good session overall. Education once again was the main focus, as it should be. There was a 6.3 percent increase in the public school support appropriations. We fully funded the third year of the teacher career ladder. We also made a 5.3 percent increase in the career technical education program. And the universities and community colleges received increased appropriations.”
“Transportation infrastructure was addressed with both appropriations for maintenance and funding for new construction. And to some extent taxes were discussed and the legislature passed the bill that will remove sales tax on food.”
“If I had any disappointments it was in regards to how tax policies in general were handled and also how the legislation for new highway funding was handled. It was not an open and transparent process of the general public.”
Interim: Nonini said he will be working on a number of things before the 2018 session, including continuing to work on the Governor’s Higher Education Task Force.
“We have had two meetings with a number of meetings to be held throughout the summer and fall.”
“I am once again assigned to the interim committee that is looking into state employee health insurance and benefits and will also be addressing public schools health insurance and benefits with the interim committee.”
“I have draft legislation ready to be introduced early next session to provide a STEM diploma along with the regular diploma to graduating high school seniors. I will also be continuing my work on STEM education and starting the fourth year of the STEM Caucus in the legislator.”
• Rep. Eric Redman, R-Athol (Second Term)
Legislation: Redman told The Press he actively supported successful efforts in the legislature this session to increase funding for career and technical education throughout the state.
“To me, that’s probably one of the most important educational areas we can improve and increase in Idaho.”
Redman also co-sponsored a transportation bill that brings an additional $300 million foto new highway projects through Garvee Bonds, which are bonds backed by eventual federal highway-funding.
“It’s the only way you’re going to get those kinds of monies together for new projects.” The same bill, according to Redman, also uses sales tax funds for road maintenance work in the state.
Achievements/Disappointments: Redman discussed a bill he has tried to pass in the last two legislative sessions, which he calls “American Laws for Idaho Courts.” The bill, which is aimed at ensuring Sharia Law cannot be used in local courts, stalled again this session.
“You just got to be consistent,” Redman said of plans to introduce the bill again next year. “If there’s some changes with membership in the Senate, we might get it through.”
Redman also said he was disappointed by a lack of health care funding addressing the Medicaid “gap” population. The representative told The Press he thought the bills drafted by the committee on several aspects of health care were solid.
“But I guess with the federal government up in the air about health care, they didn’t want to put it through.”
Interim: Redman said he plans to attend three out-of-state conferences between legislative sessions as a way of seeing what other state legislatures are working on.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene (Third Term)
Legislation: “I work on a lot of the appropriations bills; the whole committee (JFAC) works closely on those. I think it’s a great budget we came up with. Things panned out somewhat differently than what the Governor wanted, but we were also working collaboratively with the Governor on a lot of that stuff — it’s just part of the process.”
“The liquor bill that I was working on, for liquor license reform, took up a lot of my time. I’ve had people contact me from Driggs to Boise on it — it was prompted by a local issue but it really is a statewide issue. (The bill) got arbitrarily held at the desk by the speaker (Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Burley), so I lost a lot of time there and it took a while to get the bill drafted because of it. The good thing is though that now we have a good piece of legislation we can work on in the interim.”
“We came out with a health care bill, and it’s a good bill. The concept we put out there is one that is extremely important. We hear a lot about tax cuts and a lot about the economy, but if lawmakers truly want to have an impact on the quality of life for our constituents, tackling health care has to be the number one priority. We as a state can do a lot of impactful things to bring down the cost of health care. Citizens should be demanding that the state does something about health care — you’ve been waiting for the federal government to do something for eight years and they haven’t. The bill didn’t make it out though, so we didn’t have a full debate on it.”
Achievements/Disappointments: “For me, personally, it was kind of frustrating to have everything stop at the speaker’s desk. My next challenge is helping the speaker understand just how critical health care is to constituents around the state. He needs to understand the impact of the state not choosing to address the health care cost issue.”
“A transition, kind of a medium one, was transportation. I’m thrilled about a couple things regarding transportation — the Garvee bonding and the fact that we were able to pass some emergency funding for repairing the roads that were just obliterated this winter. The thing I’m most excited about though is the fact that we’ve changed the way we’re talking about funding maintenance going forward — we did something for maintenance this year that has nothing to do with the gas tax. The return on investment in regards to gas tax is falling. The fact that we changed that dialogue is huge.”
“The biggest positive is education. It’s the biggest part of our budget and it’s the biggest part of our budget for a reason. The fact that we’ve stuck to this plan and have increased our investment in what we know is the most critical part of education, quality teachers, is huge.”
Interim: “Stuff always comes up over the interim; it’s not a job that goes away. I’ll definitely be dealing with constituent issues. There’s a whole bunch of those.”
“We will be doing a wrap up town hall for District 4 and the larger group as well. I might do more town halls on the liquor license bill, and probably on health care, because we have to keep talking about those issues.”
• OTHERS: Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, did not respond to The Press’ questions about the legislative session. For a large portion of the session, the third-term representative had his son, Dirk, and wife, Sherlene, fill in for him in Boise while recovering from a knee surgery that took Mendive longer than expected.
Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, also did not respond. In his fourth term as a representative, Barbieri made headlines when he pushed House Bill 233. The measure, which did not make it to the floor for a vote, would have altered Idaho’s Public Records Act to exempt a good chunk of legislators’ emails, text messages and other forms of correspondence from public disclosure. For example, all communications between lawmakers would have been exempt.