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The Gem State's Agenda 

What to watch for in the Idaho legislature's 2017 session

Jobs

Lawmakers could consider expanding the state Tax Reimbursement Incentive program credited with generating an estimated 5,200 new jobs since it began in 2014. The program includes tax breaks for businesses that promise to create a specific number of jobs. Incentives have been awarded to 33 businesses throughout the state so far, bolstering growth in urban and rural areas.

For smaller communities in North Idaho, such as Sandpoint, the incentive has already had an impact. Two Sandpoint companies to benefit from the tax reimbursements, Quest Aircraft and Kochava, agreed to bring in a total of nearly 400 jobs.

click to enlarge Idaho Gov. Butch Otter
  • Idaho Gov. Butch Otter

The incentive has drawn criticism from existing businesses who complain that offering tax breaks to new businesses gives their competition an unfair advantage. Likewise, small businesses complain that the program's requirement to generate a certain number of new jobs in order to qualify unfairly benefits large companies. Companies in larger cities must create 50 jobs, while those in rural areas must create 20.

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Megan Ronk is considering proposing legislation that would expand the program for projects that create 10 high-paying jobs in smaller communities, according to the Spokesman-Review. Speaking to legislators earlier this month, Ronk said she expects about $2.3 billion in new wages coming to Idaho workers, and about $257 million in direct revenue to the state, in exchange for $60 million in tax credits.

Gov. Butch Otter and CBD oil

Cannabidiol oil, it appears, will remain illegal in Idaho despite the fact that all six states bordering Idaho have allowed it. Gov. Butch Otter vetoed a bill in 2015 that would have allowed cannabidiol, or CBD, oil often used as treatment for those who suffer from debilitating neurological disorders.

The legislature could propose another bill this year, but Otter says he hasn't changed his mind on the issue. The three-term Republican remains the only governor in the country to have vetoed such legislation.

Otter told reporters earlier this month that he wants to avoid the potential disaster he associates with medical and recreational marijuana. CBD oil, however, produces none of the psychoactive effects of marijuana, and has been shown to be an effective treatment for those who suffer from uncontrollable seizures.

In vetoing the bill, Otter did, however, approved a limited "experimental" program that allows a small number of children with treatment-resistant epilepsy to legally take oil extracted from the cannabis plant. The experiment has produced "sufficient relief in many cases," he says.

"I simply didn't want to open that whole area of potential disaster," Otter says.

Loser-pays court system

The Idaho Supreme Court recently ruled that if you sue someone and lose in the state of Idaho, you could be left paying their attorney's fees. The court issued a ruling bolstering the state's law known as "loser pays," which gives lower courts much wider and undefined discretion in ordering the losing side to pay up "when justice so requires."

Justice Roger Burdick, in his dissent, writes: "I believe that the majority's analysis will further inhibit access to justice and tilt the table even further toward moneyed interests in our courts."

The court's ruling won't officially take effect until March of this year, the Supreme Court decided, which gives the legislature a chance to enact a new law.

Kicked off with controversy

Not even a week into this year's legislative session, Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard) was already stirring the pot. The ultra-conservative representative, who campaigned holding a Confederate flag, was removed from all of her committee assignments just three days after the start of the 2017 session after publicly suggesting that women in the legislature must trade sex for power.

"I said legislators shouldn't have to sleep around or spread their legs to advance," Scott told KBOI Radio host Nate Shelman last week. "That's the appearance from the outside."

Scott's original comment referred to at least one alleged affair between a current member of the House and a divorced state senator and the marriage of two other House members last month.

In an unusual move, House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) removed Scott from her three committee assignments. That means Scott can still participate in House-wide votes, but is barred from the nitty-gritty committee work where bills are initially considered and voted on.

Five House members have since requested to be removed from their committee assignments, in solidarity with Scott. But Bedke refused.

Scott is part of a libertarian caucus focused on "lower taxes," "less government" and "more transparency." ♦

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