BOISE — The Idaho Senate ended the year by killing a bill that would have cut unemployment insurance and income taxes — meaning the only major tax cut to pass this year is one the governor opposes and might veto in the coming days.
Shortly after the House adjourned just before 11 a.m., the Senate voted 5-29 to kill the bill, which had left the Senate as just an unemployment insurance tax cut but came back from the House with an amendment reducing each income tax bracket by one tenth of 1 percent. Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Rupert, was the only member of the local delegation to support it.
“Our employers are going to end up paying more unemployment tax than they should because of the games that were played with this bill,” said Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens.
A bigger income tax cut passed the House early in the session but stalled in the Senate for about a month. When it finally passed committee there, after a deal to turn it into a smaller tax cut like the one the Senate rejected Wednesday, the Senate instead amended the bill to turn it into one getting rid of both the sales tax on groceries and the grocery tax credit.
Grocery tax repeal passed both the House and Senate, but Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter opposes repealing the grocery tax. As of Wednesday afternoon Otter had not signed nor vetoed the bill.
As the Senate prepared to adjourn, President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, compared this year’s session to a story about his young grandson, praying over a meal of Thai food his mother had prepared. “Heavenly Father, please make it be pizza,” he said.
“It’s not what I expected,” Hill said.
Hill said the Legislature had grappled with some difficult issues this year. Even though bills on some major issues failed, such as revising the faith-healing exemption from child-injury laws, calling for a constitutional convention of states, and providing health care to the uninsured, Hill said the Senate had learned through the debates and has a greater understanding of the issues.
“I feel good about this session,” he said.
Wayne Hoffman, head of the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation, praised lawmakers for passing civil asset forfeiture reform and grocery tax repeal, and urged them to take up several issues next year including legalizing cannabidiol oil for medical use, requiring a secret ballot in teachers union elections and barring governmental bodies from advocating in bond and levy elections.
“This legislative session was far from perfect,” Hoffman said. “But Idahoans should feel proud of a few proposals that won broad, bipartisan support.”
After both chambers had adjourned, House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, held a press conference to review how Democrats fared. Their highlights included asset forfeiture reform, anti-invasive species legislation, stopping the constitutional convention bill, getting $1.65 million for Safe Routes to School through and legislation setting standards on sexual assault evidence kits.
Erpelding called the Democrats the “moderate middle” of the Legislature, and he pushed back against the idea that people with minority views are unfairly denied a seat at the table, saying some of the people complaining are “making excuses for poorly drafted legislation,” an apparent swipe at the more conservative wing of the House GOP.
“Some of our bills don’t get a hearing because we can’t convince people,” Erpelding said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re being mistreated and that doesn’t mean we’re a victim in this body.”
Democrats were frustrated by the Legislature’s failure to address health care, especially Medicaid expansion. Given that health care reform has also stalled at the federal level, Erpelding said there is “absolutely no excuse” for Idaho to not act.
“They’ve run out of cans to kick,” he said.
Stennett was also highly critical of an infrastructure funding bill that passed Tuesday, one of the few major pieces of work that occupied the last days of the session and extended sine die beyond the originally anticipated March 24. Stennett said the bill will mean Idaho has almost $1 billion in transportation bond debt, while doing little for most of the state outside of the Treasure Valley and also threatening teacher pay raises next year by diverting some money out of the general fund.
The bill divided both parties — Erpelding, who was standing next to her as she criticized it, had voted for it. Stennett said her colleague did what he had to do to serve his constituents, who will benefit more from the expected improvements to Interstate 84 in Canyon County that the bonds will help to finance.
“My district looks different,” she said. “I’m not going to get a lot of that money.”
“When push comes to shove we vote our districts first,” Erpelding said. “We are not hamstrung by our leadership to do what we have to do.”