Legislative Update: Greetings from Boise — and a homecoming

By Rep. Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint
Reader Contributor

It’s been said this legislative session has had a slow start. There have only been a few bills passed by the Legislature and delivered to the governor. However, the speed of activity changed last week. We have five to 10 bills to debate and vote on almost every day now.

You can follow along daily by going to the Idaho Legislature website and clicking on the House Reading Calendar (legislature.idaho.gov, bottom-right screen). 

Rep. Mark Sauter. File photo.

I’m planning to return to Sandpoint for my first round of meet-and-greets this weekend. I will only have one day to host meetings in Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint and Priest River on Saturday, Feb. 25. As I write this, the weatherman is calling for light snow. I’ll be driving and have just one day; so, hopefully, the weather cooperates and I’ll be able to meet with many of you. 

I can share what’s been going on in Boise, but my primary interest is in hearing from you. With several upcoming bills about property taxes (House Bills 77-79), we can spend considerable time speaking about that. Look for an ad in this newspaper for the times and locations of the meetings.

We legislators have been spending most of our voting time considering policy and agency bills. Policy bills cover issues like the governor’s program recommendations or changing how committees may operate. Agency bills are generally about revising existing state law. 

All bills enter the legislative system through a relative committee and must first pass an introduction (a.k.a. “print”) hearing — essentially this establishes the bill as something worthy of a hearing. The hearing is a separate meeting and is at least a few days after the introduction. The time delay allows the members of the committee to consider the legislation and develop questions for the hearing as the introduction is often the first time the legislators have seen the actual bill. 

Fentanyl has been a horrible problem for our country for the past several years. It is attributed with being the No. 1 cause of death for young American adults. Most recently, we held a bill hearing in the Judiciary and Rules Committee that would have added fentanyl to the list of problematic drugs (like heroin and methamphetamines) that carry a mandatory-minimum incarceration sentence for incidents involving drug possession by traffickers (amounts that exceed those of the typical drug user). 

To be sure, I understood the issue and the bill. I spoke with the Boundary and Bonner County sheriffs, the police chiefs of Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint, and the Bonner County prosecutor. They unanimously supported the bill and added it was a necessary tool to push back against the drug trade in our district. Sadly, the bill didn’t get a good reception from the majority of the representatives on the committee, and they voted to hold the bill. I voted against the majority. I supported increasing penalties for fentanyl drug trafficking. 

Meanwhile, there is considerable talk about the concept of school choice in the Legislature this year. You may have already read about it online or in the newspaper. It’s important to look into this issue and to develop an understanding of what “school choice” involves.

Idaho has one of the best school choice programs in the country. Our students and families can pick between an array of public, charter, career tech and online public schools. In many areas there are private and parochial schools. Public and online schools can and do offer assistance to families choosing to homeschool.

Last week, the school choice bills (Senate Bill 1038) started being introduced in the Legislature. The first bill of this type was heard in the Senate Education Committee and passed its hearing. The bill now heads to the full Senate.

There is considerable attention on this bill, as it offers parents of K-12 students the ability to request $5,950 annually to use for tuition, supplies, etc. The program is open to students already in private schools and/or in homeschools. The total request is for State funding of $45 million for the program’s first year, with $40 million for student costs. Up to $3 million is additionally budgeted for administering the program, plus $2 million for a digital platform to support the program. 

Several more school choice bills are reportedly in the process of being developed. I hope to have more information to share with you on these bills and the new ones as they are presented to us in the near future.

Here’s to clear roads and smooth sailing this weekend. I hope to see you Saturday, Feb. 25.

Rep. Mark Sauter is a first-term Republican legislator from District 1A. He serves on the Agricultural Affairs; Education; and Judiciary, Rules and Administration committees. Contact him at [email protected].

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