Local legislators tackle hot topics at post session forum - East Idaho News
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Local legislators tackle hot topics at post session forum

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IDAHO FALLS — Local legislators dove straight into hot topics — including education, fentanyl, abortion, children’s access to pornography on cellular devices, the library bill and dark money — during a Post Session Legislative Luncheon Tuesday at the Westbank.

Reps. Wendy Horman, Barb Ehardt, Stephanie Mickelsen, Marco Erickson, Josh Wheeler and Sens. Mark Harris, Dave Lent and Kevin Cook — all Republicans — provided insights into their work in Boise to the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber.

Idaho Launch

Lent kicked off the luncheon with a report on Idaho Launch, which offers up to $8,000 in grants to students to pursue in-demand careers at a local community college or workforce training provider.

“The intent of the program, from an informative point of view, was to provide an educational path for those two-thirds of our population in the state that don’t go the traditional academic route and graduate from higher education,” Lent said.

The program has proven popular, with about two-thirds of graduating seniors participating, he said. Students are required to pay 20% of program costs, ensuring they have skin in the game.

RELATED | A year in the making, the $75 million Idaho Launch program opens

This year, he sponsored the financing for the program, which was signed into law with a five-year sunset limit.

“We’ll get a report every year for the Workforce Development Council on what we’re doing and how it’s working out,” he said. “But at the end, five years will determine whether or not to continue the program.”

School facilities

The Legislature also passed a significant law to expand school facilities funding. Mickelsen cited H.B. 521, which she called a “Christmas tree bill because it has so many things in it.”

“We are going to take $125 million and bond it to $1 billion that will be reallocated based upon average daily attendance back to the different districts,” she said.

She said additional funding can be added in the future, and the initiative helps the state meet its obligation defined by the state Supreme Court in 2006 to be “responsible for school facilities.”

According to Lent, H.B. 521 — when combined with last year’s H.B. 292 — will provide approximately $106 million to Idaho Falls School District 91 and $135 million to Bonneville Joint School District 93 over the next 10 years for facilities.

“Districts will still need to run bonds. The difference would be the ask at the district level will be substantially less,” Lent said.

Cook mentioned that the state will be standardizing school construction designs.

“It has a standardized cookie-cutter facility plan,” he said. “You can still put your mascot on and do your color that you want, but it will lower the cost of the building and put the money in the classroom to teach the kids.”

The bill also reduced the income tax rate from 5.8% to 5.695%.

School choice

Horman, chairwoman of the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee, expressed concern that the education budget has grown from $1.4 billion in 2015 to $2.9 billion in 2025, while the number of Idaho students has increased 8%.

“The average teacher salary in Idaho now is $61,000,” she said.

Horman continues to be a prominent advocate for school choice legislation. She said she sponsored a bill this session that narrowly failed to get out of the Revenue and Taxation Committee.

RELATED | Republicans unveil private school tax credit proposal

“The bill I ran was a tax credit for students who learn in settings other than a public school. It’s essentially Launch for K-12 — supporting students wherever they learn, in public and private settings,” Horman said, emphasizing that her bill increased financial accountability.

Mickelsen disagreed, stating that the bill created a voucher system with no accreditation requirements.

“When you take public tax dollars, and you give them to parochial and private schools, and the only checks and balances in that system are the State Tax Commission … that is not accountability,” she said.

She said Idaho already sponsors public education and charter school systems and warned that the school choice proposal has “become a budget buster for many, many states.”

“So in fact, … the average state taxpayer pays $1,625 (in taxes), and you would give them $5,000 per child. So you’re taking money out of somebody else’s pocket to give money to this parent because that parent does not want their child in the public education system,” Mickelsen said.

Ehardt offered support for Horman’s proposal.

“Not everyone learns well in these public environments,” she said. “What Rep. Horman and others — and I support it — are trying to do, it’s not trying to bankrupt our general fund or anything like that. It’s trying to find another means by which our children who struggled in public education will still have the ability to learn.”

Fentanyl mandatory minimums

H.B. 406 was signed into law on Feb. 26, instituting mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking fentanyl.

“It made fentanyl the same as other drugs. If you’re trafficking fentanyl, we’re not tolerating that,” Erickson said. “It was really difficult for us in that committee, because we had to decide. We’re working so hard to keep people out of prisons. But yet we were going to put more people in prison, and it was a very difficult decision on that case.”

RELATED | Idaho lawmakers want mandatory sentences for fentanyl; what to know about the bill


Cook, Wheeler and Erickson expressed support for abortion exemptions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life or health or the mother.

Wheeler clarified he believes no bills advanced addressing potential exemptions because several cases are going before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I share his (Cook’s) commitment to find the correct pro-family policy that also vigorously protects the life of the unborn,” Wheeler said.


Greater Idaho Falls Chamber Advocacy Committee Chairman William Athay asked a question about the shift in the state’s Medicaid program from accountable care organizations (ACO) to a managed care system.

“Right now we have four programs in the state of Idaho that have managed care,” Cook said.

He said the Department of Health and Welfare and legislators need to hold managed care operators accountable for the contracts they sign in order for the system to be successful.

“I think managed care can work, but it is not working in Idaho right now,” he said.

Erickson said that the annual rate increases for the program are significantly higher (8% to 9%) than under the ACO method (1.8%).

“It creates barriers to access to care, and it reduces the amount of quality. Patients getting services takes longer to get services,” Erickson said.

Horman expressed concern that the shift to managed care providers could lead additional providers to drop Medicaid patients.

“As the owner of a small business in the health care space, sometimes we lose money on Medicaid patients,” she said. “If you move to a managed care situation where your margins are even smaller, you have to drop being able to provide in that space. So that’s my worry of moving to managed care is that we actually create worse situations where there are fewer providers available to serve our population.”

RELATED | Idaho Medicaid waiver approval bill could immediately disrupt services, governor says

Parental Bill of Rights

Ehardt shared S.B. 1329, the Parental Rights in Medical Decision-making Act, as one of her greatest accomplishments this session.

The bill establishes that “except as otherwise provided by court order, an individual shall not furnish a health care service or solicit to furnish a health care service to a minor child without obtaining the prior consent of the minor child’s parent.”

It also allows parents access to all their child’s medical records.

RELATED | Parental rights bill emerges in the House, awaits committee hearing

Water rights

Mickelsen said that S.B. 1341, which she co-sponsored, would have a direct impact on water rights in the region.

“It made it so that everybody who is pulling out of the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer will get a chance to participate in improving that aquifer because, prior to now, they have had a Rule 50 that carved out a lot of people,” she said. “Our community was getting a disproportionate share of the responsibility for a problem that was being caused by multiple areas. So to have 1341 pass will start to change the landscape for the future of water in Idaho.”

CEI law enforcement training

Horman worked closely in tandem with College of Eastern Idaho President Rick Aman to create and secure funding for a new program to train law enforcement professionals. She said she also helped secure “additional funding that had been requested for instructor salaries at the college.”

Next-of-kin bill

Harris also highlighted S.B. 1365, which creates a state-wide next-of-kin database from driver’s license applicants in order for law enforcement or a coroner to be able to notify family members in case of an emergency or death.

RELATED | Gov. Brad Little signs bill creating statewide next-of-kin database for deceased loved ones

State budgets

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee implemented significant changes in the state budgeting process this year.

“The goals have increased transparency and accountability have taken a giant step forward by separating base spending — which you might equate to your mortgage payment — from growth spending — which is new cars, new employees, new programs, those sorts of things,” Horman said.

In so doing, the state decreased general fund spending increases from 12% last year to 1.7% this year.

Local option tax

A couple of the legislators expressed support for exploring the possibility of a limited option sales tax.

“Our district, District 35, is very diverse,” Harris said.

While Victor and Driggs struggle to provide affordable housing, Bear Lake County needs additional law enforcement – particularly during the summer months when tourists flock there on vacations.

Wheeler, his fellow District 35 legislator, agreed.

“It is one of those policy decisions that can either appropriately empower local governments where we, as conservative Republicans, believe the government functions best, or it could, frankly, be a boondoggle, but it’s worth having a conversation,” Wheeler said.

RELATED | Lift Local Idaho: The growing movement for a local option tax in Idaho


One contentious issue over the past several years has been the library bill. House Bill 710 passed the House and Senate and was signed into law this year by Gov. Brad Little on April 10. The bill requires libraries to “take reasonable steps in restricting children’s access to obscene or harmful material,” according to the bill’s statement of purpose.

“A parent or guardian of a minor child who accesses such material in violation of this policy would be entitled to bring a civil action against the school or library for ($250 plus) damages and injunctive relief.”

Cook expressed his support for the law.

“I do not believe that librarians are trying to sexualize our children. I don’t believe that. I believe they are very passionate about their literature, and they want to have literature for every walk of life,” he said. “I guess the problem I have with it is in the state of Idaho right now we have a law that defines what is harmful to minors, which includes pornography, and literature that talks about pornography and literature that talks about sexual acts.”

Distributing pornographic material to minors is against the law, he said.

RELATED | No veto this year: Little signs Idaho library bill to allow lawsuits over ‘harmful’ books

To that end, Cook plans to return next year with his content filter bill that allows parents to limit minors’ access to pornography on cellular devices. The legislation passed the Senate but not the House this session, he said.

A final word

Erickson concluded the session by sharing a plug for bipartisanship. In an era that seems divided by party ideologies, his analysis showed that only 15.8% of all bills that made it to the floor were voted upon by party lines.

Idahoan legislators — of all stripes — have as much in common on legislation as they view differently, according to Erickson.

“It’s not as bad as people think. 166 bills — which is 50% — all Republicans and all Democrats support,” he said.

Legislators 2
Legislators whose districts include Bonneville County stand together after the Post Session Legislative Luncheon. | Courtesy Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce.