Grading the Session

The Idaho Legislature made some wise decisions in Boise, but they still get a "C" for "crazy"

Tired and testy, Idaho legislators worked into the morning hours of Friday, April 10, to finish up the 2015 legislative session sine die. The phrase sine die is Latin for "we're finally getting out of this place as fast as we can and heading home!"

It's not my custom to say kind things about the heavily Republican Idaho legislature. But this year I must applaud our senators and representatives for passing a hefty $1.8 billion dollar appropriation for Idaho's struggling public schools. Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft the seven bills increasing the flow of state dollars to Idaho's 115 school districts. Just about every school sector will get a financial boost in the coming year. The career ladder for teachers has been revived and funded. The whole school ball of wax will receive an infusion of dollars and energy. It's huge.

I am also grateful to the Idaho Senate for granting a quick and painless death to the shortsighted House Bill 311, which would have knocked Idaho's graduated income tax flatter than the proverbial pancake. On the one hand, the bill offered an increase in the gasoline tax for greatly needed road repair. It also proposed erasing the always-unsavory sales tax on food. On the other hand, flattening the income tax would grant unfair and unnecessary tax relief to Idahoans in the upper income bracket. The bill was just too big a bite to swallow in one gulp. It deserved its fate.

Another step forward taken during the Boise session was passage of a strong anti-bullying bill, requiring school districts to educate students and parents on anti-bullying policies and to train their school staff on how to intervene when they observe a bully in action.

JFAC, the powerful finance and appropriations committee of the legislature, appropriated $1.72 million for a "Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center to be located in North Idaho." This is a much-needed program that will allow emotionally disturbed individuals to receive treatment close to home — and to receive the appropriate care that local jails and hospitals cannot offer.

At this writing, no announcement has been made about where exactly the crisis center will be located in Idaho's 10 northern counties. I would vote for housing the crisis center in Coeur d'Alene where the need is greatest. You may remember that last year North Idaho was not chosen to receive the first crisis center because our local legislators didn't show any interest or support. Thankfully, the legislature has given our region another chance.

Would you believe that despite the fuss and finger-pointing over their blowing off a crisis center for their constituents last session, four of our North Idaho representatives once again voted against the appropriation of a new crisis center? The anti-mental health four: Representatives Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton; Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene; and Ron Mendive, R- Coeur d'Alene.

Early in the session, Sims also voted against an effort to recognize the giant salamander as a special Idaho creature, because she was spooked by possible federal overreach under the Endangered Species Act. Fortunately the spunk of the sponsor, eighth-grade student Ilah Hickman, won out over fear of the federal bogeyman. Despite Sims' vote, Idaho now has a state amphibian, the giant salamander, dicamptodon aterrimus. Like some politicians, it comes out from under rocks.

Barbieri made national news over his clumsy confusion about the female anatomy, suggesting a glimpse of an unborn fetus could be caught by a swallowed camera.

Equally embarrassing, but not so funny, was the protest by Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll of Cottonwood over the invitation to Hindu cleric Rajan Zed to offer the opening prayer of a Senate session. Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, gave a prayer for peace and selflessness, because "selfish action imprisons the world." According to an article in the Times of India, Sen. Nuxoll said, "Hindu is a false faith with false gods." Sen. Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens, who boycotted the prayer, is also quoted saying, "Hindus worship cows."

But the zaniest and most destructive action of all was the defeat in the House of Representatives Judiciary and Rules Committee of the legislation necessary to bring Idaho's child support enforcement into conformity with federal requirements. Nine Republican members have virtually brought the Idaho system to a halt.

Gov. Butch Otter states that 400,000 people depend on Idaho's system — that's hundreds of thousands of children and their single-parent families, and tens of millions of dollars in Idaho pockets for food, clothing and simply staying alive.

Republican Rep. Don Cheatham of Post Falls told the Spokesman-Review, "We have $42 million coming to the state — it wasn't worth risking our sovereignty to me."

Gov. Otter definitely has to call a special session to correct such scary talk and such a very grave and stupid error.♦

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