Idaho lawmakers Monday passed a flurry of disputed measures to close out the 2010 Legislature, underscoring the deep rift between majority Republicans and the Democrats who make up just a quarter of the Legislature.
The session, dominated by a $200 million budget hole this fiscal year and trepidation about what will come in 2011, ended at just 78 days, well shy of last year’s 117-day epic.
In the final hours, House and Senate Republicans pushed through a symbolic measure backed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter demanding Congress amend the U.S. Constitution to ban health insurance mandates. Idaho has already joined 12 other states in suing Washington, D.C., over health care reform in the last week.
Rep. Ken Roberts, the House Majority Caucus chairman, said the 2010 session will be remembered as one where Idaho stood up to federal encroachment on states’ rights.
“To compel people to have insurance, government has gone too far,” a defiant Roberts, R-Donnelly, told lawmakers Monday afternoon.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston and a medical doctor, argued the GOP-led Legislature’s push to challenge Congress on health care reform was a futile protest and did nothing to arrest the “death spiral” of rising health care costs. The Idaho GOP had turned the Legislature into a spectacle for political grandstanding, he said, not a venue for “thoughtful consideration” most constituents demand.
“It always feels good to rail against the federal government, especially at campaign time,” Rusche said.
Monday was a grueling day that began at 9 a.m. with a hearing in the House on two constitutional amendments aimed at giving the Idaho Department of Land more flexibility to sell state- and university-owned lands. But the hearing was delayed, then canceled, after the timber industry raised concerns.
“Better to come back another day,” said Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Bone and House State Affairs Committee chairman.
Another bill that failed: A driving-safety measure that would have slapped people caught texting behind the wheel with a $50 fine. It was amended by the Senate earlier in the day, but died in the House just before adjournment. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, led the opposition, calling the bill unenforceable.
“If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig,” Labrador said.
Among significant legislation that did pass House and Senate chambers Monday:
- A measure to give the governor and Idaho’s other six constitutional officers a 4 percent pay cut in 2011.
- A plan to educate coaches, parents and teen athletes about the risks of head injuries among young players.
- A revamped reminder system for childhood immunizations meant to improve the state’s 66 percent immunization rate for kids 19- to 35-months-old, with House-backed changes emphasizing that shots are voluntary.
- Lawmakers backed a voluntary aquifer protection fund for southeastern Idaho farmers.
- And Idaho also joined states like Montana and Tennessee in passing a bill to exempt guns and ammunition made or sold in the state from federal regulations, such as background checks and registration. For Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, gun control is another line in the sand Beltway bureaucrats are all too content to cross.
“It’s time we stand up and say ‘No, wrong, you’re not going to do it,’ ” Pearce said.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter still must approve most of the legislation before it becomes law.
One bill he didn’t sign was a measure aimed at making sure that health care workers, including pharmacists, aren’t forced to give advice or care that violates their consciences on such matters as emergency contraception and advising seniors on last wishes.
But because Otter didn’t act on the measure, the bill automatically goes into effect. The governor said he was torn.
“Forcing health care professionals to provide services they find morally objectionable is unacceptable,” he wrote in a message to lawmakers explaining his decision not to sign the bill. “However, negatively impacting patients’ rights – especially when it comes to end-of-life decisions – is equally problematic.”
Legislators also gave Otter access to $107 million in reserves – mostly money that’s promised for the fiscal year starting July 1 – to cover any further tax revenue shortfalls that crimp this year’s already-reduced $2.35 billion budget.
“This is the ‘what if-section,’ ” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome and co-chairwoman of the budget writing committee. “We’re hoping this doesn’t happen, but he does need this opportunity.”
Senators including Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, and Chuck Winder, R-Boise, wrapped up their session with a ditty to the tune of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
“Remove your badge and pass the light, we’re headed home tonight,” they sang.