Legislators update Challis on session

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Rep. Dorothy Moon updates constituents on the 2017 legislative session, while fellow Rep. Terry Gestrin (background) and Sen. Steven Thayn (foreground) listen. Todd Adams photos

Rep. Terry Gestrin shows the Challis crowd an Idaho license plate covered by invasive quagga mussels. Todd Adams photos

Idaho Legislators representing District 8 held a public forum in Challis last week to update constituents on what the 2017 legislative session both accomplished and failed to do.

A common thread ran through the April 12 meeting at Challis American Legion Hall. Rep. Dorothy Moon, Rep. Terry Gestrin and Sen. Steven Thayn agreed that Gov. Butch Otter tends to look after state agencies and agency heads more than Idaho taxpayers and that legislative leaders often delay important spending and other bills until late in the session when there’s no time to amend or debate them.

Moon and Dolores Ivie of Challis organized and publicized the meeting.

Spending

Rep. Moon said she’d suspected, and her first legislative session confirmed, that there’s a lot of frivolous spending in Idaho, that relief for taxpayers is needed and that in her opinion a state balanced budget is a myth.

The legislature authorized state borrowing in the neighborhood of $300 million worth of GARVEE (Grant Anticipated Revenue Vehicle) bonds for new road construction, Moon said, much of which happens in the Boise-Nampa area. Idaho doesn’t have enough money to maintain its existing roads, she said.

Rep. Gestrin said that in total, the Idaho Legislature authorized about $500 million in bonding authority, including for roads, almost all of which is spent in the Treasure Valley; about $120 million for the Department of Administration to buy the former Hewlett-Packard campus in Boise to house state agencies; and $90 million for the Department of Education to build new buildings for cyber security education in Idaho Falls.

Grocery tax

Liberty or conservative legislators agreed the state should exempt groceries from its 6 percent sales tax, Moon said, but Gov. Otter vetoed a bill that would have exempted groceries. There’s now a lawsuit that all three District 8 legislators, Moon, Gestrin and Thayn, have signed their names to, along with 30 house members and some senators.

The lawsuit argues that Gov. Otter’s veto is invalid because it happened 12 days after the legislature adjourned, not 10 days as the Idaho Constitution demands. Otter’s office argues the clock should start from his receipt of the legislation, which happened two days after the session ended.

Idahoans in the Boise area drive to Ontario, Oregon, to shop for groceries to avoid the sales tax, Moon said, while Salmon residents drive to Missoula, Montana.

Bad bills

On the other hand, some bad bills were defeated, Moon said. The state will not collect personal data while immunizing children because a bill was defeated.

And a bill failed that Moon said would have paid college dropouts $3,000 to go back to college. Known as the adult completion scholarship bill, it had no mechanism to reimburse Idaho taxpayers, Moon said, and no minimum GPA for students to qualify. Why give scholarship money to dropouts who have already showed they can’t succeed, she asked.

Vetoes

Each District 8 legislator had a bill vetoed by Gov. Otter.

Moon was disappointed the governor vetoed her bill that would have made it easier for Idaho patients to use CBD (cannabidiol oil from cannabis plants) to help control epilepsy and other seizures. Moon’s bill would have allowed epilepsy and fibromyalgia patients to carry a prescription card from their doctor authorizing the use of CBD oil with only 0.3 percent THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana). She’ll reintroduce it and try again in 2018.

“He doesn’t listen to people,” she said of the governor.

The governor vetoed a Rep. Gestrin bill to help fight invasive quagga and zebra mussels in Idaho. Gestrin’s bill would have created a new administrative position in the governor’s office that would weigh in on invasive species policy. Idaho needs to coordinate invasive species efforts and work with the federal Department of the Interior, National Park Service, BLM and other agencies to stop boats from leaving mussel-infested waters.

Otter said the invasive species administrator in the governor’s office wasn’t needed, according to Spokane Spokesman Review reporter Betsy Russell. The governor issued an executive order to formalize the work of the Invasive Species Council, which the new administrator would have overseen. Otter said the state Department of Agriculture, which got a big budget increase this year for the effort to keep quagga and zebra mussels out of Idaho, should continue to head the effort.

“He protects his agencies,” Gestrin said of Otter. “He protects government.”

The House in March approved raising the invasive species sticker fee for out-of-state motorboats that use Idaho waters starting in 2018. Gestrin said the bill would raise about $70,000 more a year for Idaho’s efforts to keep invasive quagga and zebra mussels out of the state, and only the out-of-state boat sticker fee is being raised because that’s where the threat lies. Boats from infested bodies of water such as lakes Mead, Powell and Havasu have so far not brought the mussels to Idaho, but they have been found in Montana, he said.

Sen. Thayn saw his bill to create health savings accounts (HSAs) for state employees vetoed by the governor. This would have reduced health care costs for the state, he said. “Just because we’re all Republicans doesn’t mean we’re all looking out for taxpayers.”

Health care costs need to be reduced somehow, Thayne said. Some people with health insurance, which carries a high deductible, don’t have enough money to see their primary care doctors. There’s a growing awareness of this and the need to change the way we pay for health care.

People need to be encouraged to make good lifestyle choices, such as stopping smoking, stopping overeating and increasing exercise to lower stress, Thayne said. If not, they should pay more. “We don’t always make the best choices,” he said.

Thayn didn’t totally disagree with the grocery tax veto, understanding that state revenue is in jeopardy, but added the governor is more concerned about state money than taxpayers’ money.

Sen. Thayn disagreed with Otter’s veto of a bipartisan civil-asset forfeiture bill that would have made it harder for law enforcement officers to seize property suspected of being involved in drug dealing. The governor insisted there’s no problem in Idaho to fix, but lawmakers and some news reports suggested otherwise. Among the bill’s reforms was preventing the seizure of cash from people who haven’t been charged with a crime. Otter cited law enforcement opposition to the bill in his veto.

Otter has settled in as a CEO of state government that looks out for state agencies, Thayn said. Thayn does agree with Otter’s stance not to raise taxes.

There are much more conservative representatives now than when Thayn began serving in the Idaho Legislature 11 years ago. In District 8, “We don’t agree on everything,” Thayn said. But the District 8 legislators keep each other informed about bad bills that are introduced, Gestrin said.

Delays

House and senate leaders delayed a lot of big spending bills until the end of the session, when there was no time left to debate or amend them, Moon said. Eight legislators said they’d stay on unpaid to finish needed business, she said, but the session adjourned. “Next time, we’ll say we’re not going,” she said.

Overall, Moon said, there were successes and failures, and she was disappointed she didn’t have more success, but the session was a big learning experience for her. She refused to eat dinner with lobbyists during the session and instead spent evening time reading bills while walking on her treadmill.

“I like all of them,” Thayn said of GOP leadership in the Idaho House and Senate, “but I feel we need legislation brought before the last week of the session.”

For example, there was no time to debate a pay-as-you-go approach to funding Idaho roads versus alternatives such as borrowing or increasing the gas tax, Thayn said. That bill came too late in the session.

Concerns

People at the Challis meeting expressed concerns about everything from new highway signs that are too bright when they reflect headlights back to water rights, new wilderness areas and too many deer tags going to out-of-state hunters.

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