This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Boise • Idaho lawmakers closed out the 2017 legislative session Wednesday, finishing the year by passing a contentious repeal of the state's 6 percent sales tax on groceries while clearing a sweeping transportation funding plan.
"Every session has a different personality, but this one really had an interesting personality," said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Idaho Falls. "Nevertheless, we've accomplished some things that have never been accomplished before."
Yet this session was also marked by what the Legislature couldn't complete. Lawmakers backed away from addressing the state's estimated 78,000 Idahoans without health care coverage, arguing that uncertainty in Congress prevented them from taking any meaningful actions to provide medical care or expand Medicaid eligibility to Idaho's needy population.
Meanwhile, proposals that tweaked the state's stance on faith healing, strengthened victim's rights and revamped Idaho's 70-year-old system of doling out liquor licenses all failed to gain enough support to clear the Statehouse.
A $28 million tax relief plan that slashed personal and corporate income tax rates backed by legislative leadership nose-dived on the final day of the session after Senate lawmakers voted 29-5 to spike the proposal. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, had pitched a similar proposal earlier in the year, but lawmakers fed up with being blocked by leadership hijacked the bill and turned it into a repeal of the sales tax on groceries.
The surprise rewrite passed both chambers despite being opposed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. As of Wednesday, it was still unknown if the Republican governor would sign the repeal.
Despite the setbacks, House Speaker Scott Bedke praised lawmakers' work on education funding and taking modest steps to address the state's infrastructure needs.
Lawmakers agreed earlier this year to boost public school funding by 6.3 percent, totaling roughly $1.7 billion. The K-12 budget plan also includes $62 million to fund teacher pay increases, which is the third installment of a five-year plan to retain and attract teachers with higher salaries. Then, both the House and the Senate spent the final week of the session fighting to pass a $320 million transportation funding bill.
The plan primarily uses bonds to pay for new road projects and repay it with future federal highway payments, but it also includes allowing leftover state general funds to be used for transportation projects and funneling 1 percent of the state's sales tax revenue to other road and congestion funds.
Idaho uses fuels taxes, registration fees and other sources to pay for its state and local roads and bridges. With the Republican-controlled Statehouse refusing to consider raising the gas tax and other fees, lawmakers agreed it was time to consider using general fund dollars to pay for infrastructure.
"The bare minimums when it comes to transportation infrastructure are not adequate and we need to make major investments there so we can get through bad winters. I am very optimistic that that goes into law," Bedke said. "We laid the groundwork in an unprecedented way to flip some general fund money to address congestion, economic development and I think that's a major step."
That turn came at a time when Bedke faced increasing criticism from a handful of new GOP lawmakers who routinely caused delays, challenging the Republican establishment. The session started with Bedke temporarily stripping Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, of her committee assignments after she said women only move ahead in the Statehouse by trading sexual favors. In another instance, several far-right conservatives forced the body to read bills aloud, leading to long delays to the legislative process, while others announced they would be starting a new caucus to help conservative-backed proposals traction.
This year's session lasted 80 days.