By Ben Olson
By all accounts, the 2017 legislative session got off to a bumpy start. Lobbyists, reporters and lawmakers alike have acknowledged this session has had a “wonky” feel to it. Despite the fact that fewer bills have been filed this year than in previous years and a case of public infighting between the speaker of the house and a North Idaho representative culminated in the representative briefly losing her committee assignments, North Idaho lawmakers have attempted to stay on track at this midway point of the 2017 legislative session.
For Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who co-chairs the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), the pace has been busy from the get-go.
“Right after we heard from the governor on the first day, what his state of the state and budget overlook is, the budget committee starts right in here in state agency budget presentations the second day,” said Keough in a phone interview. “Although, non-budget committee members have expressed that it feels slower than usual.”
Keough acknowledged that bill introduction deadlines are down a bit from last year, but that’s not unusual involving a first session after an election with new members: “A lot of new members are just trying to figure out how things work.”
Keough said the deadline has passed for bills to be introduced in the Senate, so the real work of setting and approving 104 budgets has begun in earnest.
One aspect Keough has advocated for is the proper maintenance for infrastructure, which, with recent calls for tax cuts, could be impacted.
“[Tax cuts] will impact, yes,” said Keough. “Not so much on the roads, necessarily, because historically the money that goes into roads comes from gas taxes and vehicle registration fees,” said Keough.
In the past two years, a surplus eliminator has been in place: “If there is unrecognized surplus from taxes coming in, it splits for two years between roads and our budget stabilization fund.”
If money is taken out of the stream for tax cuts bills, Keough said: “that leaves less money for [the] surplus eliminator for roads, or less money for schools, or less money for other services that Idahoans expect from their government.”
In Gov. Otter’s state of the state address, he specifically singled out education as a primary goal to improve in Idaho. Keough said she has seen a general commitment to increase funding for K-12 schools from the state to the local districts.
“There’s a commitment to funding the next piece of the teacher’s career ladder, which is a change to how we fund teachers in Idaho,” said Keough. “Committees are starting to come out in the introduction process that seem to indicate a continued support for the public system. At the same time, there are critics.”
On the topic of education, Keough weighed in on the upcoming LPOSD supplemental levy: “My perspective as an individual citizen is that it’s important to get the facts, to attend school board meetings and talk with school board members directly,” she said. “My experience has been that I believe that this school board in LPOSD has been very transparent and amenable to patrons and citizens for how things can be done better. From a Senate perspective, we do not adequately or fully fund public schools, so they are reliant for local taxpayers to make up the difference.”
Along with being responsible for getting 104 budget bills approved through the system, Keough has also introduced two bills that directly impact life in North Idaho.
One piece of legislation was introduced with Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, as a co-sponsor that deals with facility animals like Ken, a canine who currently resides as the official courthouse dog in Bonner County and is specially trained to provide comfort for child witnesses.
According to Keough, SB 1089 aims to allow facility dogs like Ken to remain at the witness stand in the courtroom to provide comfort to a witness child while they are testifying.
Another piece of legislation Keough introduced involves telehealth or telemedicine.
“We established a few years ago the framework for the delivery or ability for trained medical professionals and health care providers to deliver services via telehealth,” said Keough. “So, not only does the doctor visit you in your home, which was always allowed of course, but now can visit over the telephone or Skype.”
Keough sees this bill as a great tool for rural areas in Idaho, “particularly in times like these when traveling to your doctor’s appointment from places like Samuels into Sandpoint during some of the recent storms is problematic at best. But you can still keep that appointment through telehealth.”
The bill, SB 1058, which was introduced on behalf of doctors in the Sandpoint area, would allow doctors and health care providers to be reimbursed at the same level as if it was an in-office visit through the insurance companies.
Keough also weighed in on the controversy involving Speaker Scott Bedke’s admonishing Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard for lewd comments that Scott made disparaging female legislators.
“I think that managing a legislative process with 105 different personalities requires rules, framework, respect and discipline,” said Keough. “It’s important to respect the process. You also have to deal with your frustrations and disappointments in an adult and respectful manner.”
Scott’s comment in January that female members of the Idaho house only got leadership assignments if they “spread their legs,” generated a wave of backlash. Speaker Bedke stripped Scott of her committee assignments until Scott issued several apologies, which culminated in her being reinstated.
“I wasn’t there when the comment was made, and there is a lot of information and sides of the story,” said Keough. “It was an unfortunate comment. It certainly casts a bad light on all the female legislators in the body who have worked really hard in standing in a predominantly male body. So, in that regard, it was disheartening. That said, it sounds as though an apology has been made and an effort is underway to move forward and be respectful.”
Rep. Scott was contacted multiple times but refused to comment on this story.
Finally, Keough also wanted to encourage constituents to participate in the legislative session via the internet.
“The distance between home and the capital has diminished greatly if you have a good internet connection,” she said. “The state website is designed for people that can’t be here in this valley to access the process.”
Keough said internet viewers can watch the floor sessions, JFAC and committee meetings. She said you can also see bills being introduced and contact legislators to participate: “It really makes the miles seem shorter.”
To access streaming capabilities, check out https://legislature.idaho.gov for more information.
In the house, Dixon said he also is not seeing the “slow” pace of this year’s legislative session.
“My perspective of the 2017 session is a little skewed because I am on a new morning committee that has consumed much of my time,” Dixon said in a written response. “Most of my morning is taken up by sitting on JFAC, and the session had appeared to move very quickly for me.”
Dixon said that while on the surface it appears to be moving slow, “many pieces of legislation” are being discussed in different corners of the building.
Along with his responsibilities on JFAC, the majority of legislation Dixon has taken part in involves the budgets he is carrying.
“I have been assigned to carry the budgets for the Transportation Department, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Building Safety, and the Lt. Governor,” said Dixon.
Dixon is also a house sponsor for a bill that would require the Idaho Transportation Department to offer a non-REAL ID compliant driver’s license or ID card.
Regarding Gov. Otter’s call for more educational emphasis in Idaho, Dixon remains skeptical.
“Whether or not the education committees will see merit in his proposals remains to be seen,” said Dixon. “I understand the importance of local levies to the [Lake Pend Oreille] School District, but I am also certain that there will be another increase in education funding from the state and that should be taken into consideration.”
Regarding the recent bills calling for tax cuts, Dixon came out on the side of the cuts, stating he was a “proponent of tax cuts, and specifically eliminating the tax on groceries.”
Dixon added: “The bills that have passed the house are languishing in the Senate Committee, and with the increased damage to roads due to winter weather, I doubt they will move out of the Senate Committee this year, as roads have become a focus.”
When asked about the reaction in the House in the aftermath of Rep. Scott’s lewd remarks, Dixon said, “The excitement within the House that began our session this year has waned, and everyone seems focused on doing their job as legislators at this point.”
North Idaho’s other member of the house, Rep. Heather Scott, was contacted multiple times for this story but refused to comment in time for publication.
In January, Scott rolled out a “Freedom Agenda” highlighting over 60 items that promote less government across the board. Some items include repealing the grocery tax, repealing the registration fee increase for hybrid vehicles, lowering state income tax and legalizing CBD oil (non-THC) for seizures.
There are also more ideological items on Scott’s agenda, including recognizing Idaho as a sovereign state, promoting the removal of government licenses for marriage (largely seen as a pushback against the federal ruling on same-sex marriage), repealing the state Health Insurance Exchange (part of a larger effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act) and an anti-Sharia Law bill to recognize American laws for American courts.
Scott has also promoted protecting life, including a call for defunding Planned Parenthood, banning dismemberment abortion, prohibiting abortion after heartbeat is detected and promoting the idea that life starts at conception.
Scott opposed HB 26, a tax conformity bill that accepts the federal government’s definition of same sex marriage, stating: “If this is something Idaho wants to change, it needs to be done correctly and legally which requires a change to the Idaho Constitution, not just ignoring it and violating it.”
In an email to her followers, Scott lamented a handful of proposed bills that are currently being denied a hearing by committee chairmen.
“There are several good bill ideas sitting in Committee Chairmen drawers,” wrote Scott in an email newsletter, “and are being denied an opportunity to be introduced and debated.”
These bills include those aiming to repeal Common Core, bills establishing a Castle Doctrine, which designates a person’s home as a place in which that person can defend using deadly force and a bill which stops special pension spiking for legislators’ pension plans.
As a result, Scott wrote, “This is one of the many reasons I always encourage citizens to get involved in their government.”
This statement, however, runs contrary to Scott’s previous statements posted on Facebook calling for her followers to boycott a general election forum held by SandpointOnline.com and the Sandpoint Reader because it was a trap to “harm conservative candidates” by reporting their answers to questions.
“I am encouraging my supporters to not attend,” wrote Scott. “We don’t need the Reader, the Bee or any other paper to advance our cause.”