BOISE — Idaho’s highest ranking elected officials offered hints of what this year’s legislative session might look like at the Associated Press’s annual legislative preview event Friday morning, touching on topics including education, health care, and criminal justice reform.
Each of those areas will be affected by Idaho’s status as the fastest-growing state in the country.
House and Senate leaders addressed concerns about Idaho’s crowded prison system, an issue the Magic Valley has increasingly felt the effects of over the past year. As state prisons reach capacity and beyond, more inmates are staying in the Twin Falls County Jail for longer periods of time, contributing to a crowding crisis.
“We will experience growing pains in each of these areas, because the prison population is always going to be a percentage of the overall number,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, a Republican from Oakley.
Legislators will likely defer to the executive branch on the question of whether to build a new prison to house the overflow, Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill said, but noted that he planned to meet soon with Department of Correction Director Henry Atencio.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum, cited an ongoing bipartisan effort to rethink mandatory minimum sentences in an attempt to reduce the number of state inmates. Mandatory minimum sentences in Idaho range from one to 15 years in prison for drug crimes involving marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin.
Also present at the preview was Gov. Butch Otter, who used the opportunity to announce a new executive order “restoring choice in health insurance for Idahoans.”
In his remarks at the event, Otter said education would once again be a priority for him in his last year in office. The comments came one day after the governor announced that he plans to push for a “chief education officer” position to streamline functions in the state’s higher education system.
“When was the last time you heard robust debate on an education bill in the state?” he asked the crowd, suggesting that momentum on education legislation had slowed since the state adopted its five-year Career Ladder plan in 2015.
Otter then turned to health care, introducing an executive order that would let insurance companies create new health care plans that don’t have all the requirements of the Affordable Health Care Act.
The Department of Insurance hasn’t yet decided which requirements to drop, according to Director Dean Cameron, but Otter estimated that the new guidelines would lower the cost of some plans by as much as 50 percent.
Seven requirements will remain, Cameron said, but it’s unknown what those requirements might be.