BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Thursday offered differing views on the outcomes of Idaho's longest ever legislative session after lawmakers grappled with challenges brought on by fast growth and an influx of new residents straining roads, schools and tax fairness policy.
"It's going to take some time to transition from old Idaho into this new Idaho," said Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke. "It's a different economy, but people move here for the old values. So as we transition into whatever the future brings, we've got to have infrastructure in place."
The session ended late Wednesday after 122 days with the Senate adjourning but the House recessing so it would have the ability to call the Legislature back to Boise.
The full implications of technically keeping the session going are not fully clear, though lawmakers have said they want input into spending decisions in the event the state receives another large infusion of unanticipated federal funding.
"We are a little bit in uncharted territory here," Bedke said, anticipating he would have to get agreement from the Senate before trying to reconvene the Legislature. "We've kept our foot in the door in case of the unforeseen this summer."
Lawmakers remain angry at actions Republican Gov. Brad Little took last year at the start of the coronavirus pandemic that included a temporary stay-at-home order when COVID-19 patients threatened to overwhelm hospitals. They also have said they should have had a role in spending the $1.25 billion the state received early last year in federal coronavirus rescue money.
The Legislature had adjourned by that time last year and was powerless to do anything. Only a governor can call special session after the House and Senate both adjourn.
"I don't anticipate putting anything into effect unless there's another big chunk of federal money," Bedke said of potentially reconvening the Legislature.
Bedke said the legislative session resulted in positive movement in spending more on education, as well as income tax cuts and property tax relief that included raising the homeowner's exemption from $100,000 to $125,000.
He said perhaps the greatest impact was work spearheaded in the House that led to $80 million in ongoing transportation funding and the ability for the state to sell up to $1.6 billion of bonds to fund roads and bridges.
"I think the roads package will give us the most benefit," Bedke said.
But Democratic lawmakers said the state lost a rare opportunity to bolster education with the economy rebounding and millions of dollars in federal coronavirus pandemic rescue money for the state. They noted that Republicans cut university budgets because of concerns that critical race theory was being used to "indoctrinate" students.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel called the Republican-dominated House and Senate pushing through bills toward the end of the session with little opportunity for public participation a form of "legislative malpractice."
"Many have called this the worst legislative session ever," she said, "and it's hard to dispute that conclusion."
Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers, holding 58 of 70 seats in the House and 28 of 35 seats in the Senate. Republicans used that majority to suspend rules and speed legislation, most notably the property tax bill that Democrats said provides little relief amid soaring home values and will require local governments to cut essential services.
"Ironically, in the end it's the Republicans who are defunding the police," Rubel said.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett questioned the fairness of the tax system.
"Our tax burden has shifted more to residential property and less on commercial property at a time of extraordinary growth," she said.
The property tax bill put forward by Republicans gave businesses a boost on their property tax exemption from $100,000 to $250,000.
Republican lawmakers passed several bills to sharply curtail a governor's authority during declared emergencies, which Little vetoed, and settled for watered-down versions that Little signed.
"This was about restoring power to the people," said Republican House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks.
The Statehouse in non-pandemic years is often filled with people participating in the process or just observing it.
School kids often take field trips there. But this year, with coronavirus, the building had far fewer people. However, lawmakers said many people took part by virtual participation from all over the state as committees allowed remote testimony.
Republican House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma said the pandemic, or restrictions associated with it around the state, resulted in a different atmosphere than normal during the session that was noticed by lawmakers.
"We're all living in a time of heightened anxiety as a society," she said.
Most Republican lawmakers opted not to wear face coverings in the Statehouse during the session, with lawmakers forced on a two-week break after six House members contracted COVID-19 over a short period.
Governor Brad Little issued the following on the 2021 legislative session:
“This was a truly historic legislative session in many ways – some good, and some not as good. I have spent my time as Governor listening to the people about their expectations of state government and how we can deliver on what’s really important to them. Fully funding schools, addressing the impacts of unprecedented growth by investing in our roads, and supporting individuals, families, and businesses through responsible tax policies top the list. I believe the people of Idaho vote for their elected officials with the expectation they will prioritize the issues that impact their day-to-day lives. I was able to secure legislative support for historic tax cuts, historic investments in transportation and other critical infrastructure, and a financially solvent state budget.
“This is the longest legislative session in Idaho history. That’s not something anyone should aspire to happen. This is Idaho, not Washington, D.C. Our citizens expect legislators to get in, do the work of the people, and leave expeditiously. That is what the Idaho Constitution intended. I appreciate the Idaho Senate for upholding the spirit of the Idaho Constitution and voting to adjourn.
“An unknown end-of-session date and important work left undone create major dysfunction in state government, namely with the implementation of administrative rules. I know that’s not an exciting topic, but it comes down to the nuts and bolts of state government and our ability to provide service to Idahoans. My executive administration and I will find ways to make state government function and move forward – as we have before – but it will cost time and money.
“I recently received a note from a mayor whose grandpa, Jack Murphy, served as Idaho Lieutenant Governor for eight years until 1975. When he left the Senate chambers for the last time, he said, ‘There can be no personal victory or triumph for those who serve here. There can be no individual defeat… The only victor when we are wise – is Idaho. The only victim if we are unwise – is her People.’
“The people of Idaho have a lot to celebrate for what we accomplished for them this session, but in other ways we can do much, much better.”