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Boise, ID 83720-0081

(208) 332-1353

Boise Idaho Senator Michelle Stennett, Idaho State Senate Minority Leader

News Blog

Legislative News, END OF 2015 SESSION

Michelle Stennett

The Idaho Legislature adjourned on April 11th at 1:33 a.m. after 13 weeks in the Capitol. While it can be challenging to represent the diverse populations and interests of District 26, many of you expressed support for the most important issues confronting us this year. You wanted us to improve teacher compensation after too many years of low pay that ranked Idaho at the bottom. You asked us to extend Medicaid to cover uninsured workers and save taxpayers millions. You supported protecting access to public lands and upgrading roads and bridges to improve public safety and the movement of goods. While we may not have met all these goals, we did have some notable achievements and I wanted to share a recap of the 2015 legislative session from my vantage point.

Refocusing the legislature's commitment to properly investing in K-12 public education was our top priority. The $1.8 billion budget for public schools for fiscal year 2016 represents a 7.4% ($101 million) increase over last year. This includes $33.5 million to cover year one of the career ladder salary plan for teachers and a 3% increase for administrators and support staff. Our goal was clearly identified by Governor Otter's Task Force for Improving Education: raise pay to recruit and retain the highest quality teachers for our students and stop the exodus to our six neighboring states where educational investments far outpace Idaho's.

Only after all the stakeholders were brought into the negotiations did we get the policy right and the result is a universally-supported plan that will boost pay (and morale) for Idaho teachers by $125.5 million over the next five years. Our support for education still lags but we've put our foot on the first rung of that ladder to improving our education rankings. Our main challenge will be sustaining this commitment to K-12 and putting the same creativity into higher education and pre-K investments if we sincerely want to boost Idaho's economic standing.

We have long-ignored our transportation infrastructure, both the $262 million needed annually for maintenance and the work required to develop a 21st Century plan to address expansion and public transit. Only in the waning days of the session, and after convening a rarely used conference committee to hash out a hard-fought compromise between House and Senate, did we pass legislation that will raise $95 million for road and bridge repairs. The revenue will primarily come from a 7 cent gas tax increase and higher registration fees (especially for hybrids and electric cars). We didn't go far enough but this was the best that could be accomplished at this time in this legislative environment.

As I've said repeatedly, it isn't a matter of more spending - it's about our priorities for how we spend the revenue on hand. Willfully refusing to adopt the Healthy Idaho Plan was our great failure. Over 78,000 hardworking Idahoans have fallen through the gap between affordable state and federal insurance programs. The Governor's Medicaid Redesign Workgroup consistently recommended extending insurance coverage to this group while boosting accountability for consumers and providers. It is estimated that the cost of our failure will be 450 premature deaths annually, untapped mental health coverage for our citizens (including veterans), and the loss of $650 million to the state and counties over the next decade. $650 million would go a long way toward further supporting education, improving our roads and bridges without tax hikes and other investments important to our state and local communities. 

The legislature showed fiscal irresponsibility in passing a law to move the presidential primary to March, a change that only benefits registered Republicans but will cost all taxpayers $2 million. We added a law that contradicts existing child protection statutes and strengthens religious shield laws to the point that litigation will surely ensue. We also confronted a slew of contracting scandals - The Idaho Education Network, Schoolnet, and ISEE among them - that will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions. While we passed a law to improve oversight of state contracts, set up an interim task force to review contract purchasing rules, and funded broadband contracts at the local school district level, we did not advance a bill establishing an Office of the Inspector General to investigate concerns about fraud, waste, abuse or malfeasance, a move that would promote open government and reduce costly lawsuits.  

Fiscal carelessness was compounded by a small group of lawmakers whose public displays of intolerance push business away from Idaho. While the Senate killed a House-backed memorial asking Congress to impeach any federal judge who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the bill's sponsor publically compared gay citizens with slave owners. The Governor continues to expend taxpayer money fighting same-sex marriage while the legislature again denied the 9-year effort to add the words sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho's Human Rights Act. On our final day, the House killed a unanimously-passed Senate bill putting Idaho in compliance with a multilateral treaty extending child support collections abroad. Based on irrational fears over Sharia law, this disastrous move will impact 40,000 families relying on child support, cost the state $46 million for non-compliance, threaten 100 state jobs and likely require a special legislative session to correct.

But this body is capable of compassion. We passed a bill that would provide a very limited get-out-of-jail card to any patient or parent arrested for possession of cannabidoil oil, a natural hemp extract which has zero psycho-active effects but has been shown to dramatically reduce violent seizures in children with intractable epilepsy. We approved a measure to expunge the records of human trafficking victims forced into criminal activity by their tormentors and we established training and orientation guidelines for schools to prevent or intervene in the face of hostile bullies. We even helped an 8th grader realize her 5-year dream of having the Idaho Giant Salamander designated as the state's official amphibian.

Our district will benefit from the passage of a bill that expands access to a single specialty liquor license for small event facilities in 13 resort communities including Hailey, Ketchum, Stanley, and Sun Valley. This will enhance business opportunities and bring small-scale conferences to our region. On a long-running issue with consequences for our area's outdoor lifestyle, and the economy it supports, we rejected several measures to continue pursuing the state's unconstitutional takeover of public lands. Among the failed proposals was one that required Idaho to write a blank check to gain membership in an interstate compact intent on privatizing our lands. Sadly, we all lost out on a great opportunity for public recreation and grazing on a parcel of land with outstanding wildlife - including mule deer, elk, antelope, sage grouse, and significant fisheries. The Rinker family sold the 10,400-acre Rock Creek Ranch, and an adjacent 10,000 acres of BLM grazing allotments, to facilitators charged with honoring the family's legacy of promoting public access. The Department of Fish & Game only needed the legislature to approve the use of existing funds to assume management of the ranch but the House defeated this appropriation over political posturing.

A curtailment order by the Idaho Department of Water Resources profoundly impacted hundreds of groundwater users across District 26, including many of our towns and cities. As part of a mitigation plan designed to manage water differently, address water calls, and honor water rights users, a new water distribution pipeline in the Hagerman Valley was completed on time and is fully operational. In September of 2013, an order was issued for members of the Big Wood & Little Wood Water Users Association, who are entitled to delivery of water from the Big Wood River below Magic Dam, having suffered from premature curtailment of delivery of their surface water rights. All the surface water rights are located in Water District 37 and are hydrologically connected to ground water rights in the Wood River Valley aquifer system. I sponsored successful legislation which allows newly-formed ground water districts to increase charges from $1 per inch of water to $3 per inch of water so as to provide enough money for the district to run an election and cover the costs of defending or mitigating ground water rights.

 As always, it is an honor to serve and represent the people of District 26 and I remain available throughout the year to answer questions, help resolve problems, and serve your needs.