Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Legislature wraps up—finally

Session characterized by polarization

Express Staff Writer

The 2011 Legislature adjourned last Thursday, unusually polarized and leaving a number of controversial laws in its wake.

Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, called the session "long and intense," echoing Democratic leadership's assertion last week that the session was possibly the worst in the party's collective memory.

While the Republican majority rejected the notion that the session was the worst, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, conceded that the session was "difficult."

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the Legislature this session reflected a national shift in political sentiment.

"I think the country is more polarized," she said. "What's happening in our state is what is happening in Washington, D.C."

Jaquet said the polarization was shown particularly in the removal of two state representatives from House leadership roles. Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, and Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, were stripped of committee chair positions following adjournment of the session Thursday for not voting along party lines.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said Smith and Trail were given a chance, but did not support party leadership, as is expected of committee chairs.

"Most everyone gets one to two free passes," Denney said.

Trail and Smith were part of a handful of moderate Republicans in the House who opposed the education reform bills. The bills limit teachers' collective bargaining rights and allow districts to lay off teachers as late as October while setting up a pay-for-performance system and increasing technology in the classroom.

Jaquet said Trail and Smith were likely attempting to represent the views of their constituents rather than the party leadership.

"They voted their districts and their values," she said.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the bills had only narrow support in the Senate and were faced with "overwhelming" opposition from parents, teachers and other stakeholders.

She voted against all three bills and the five trailer bills that made the reform bills effective immediately, but all eight passed both branches and became law.

"This action further underscores the flaws inherent in the Otter-Luna plan and the flaws inherent in the legislative process," she said, contending that the bills would result in increased class sizes, lower student achievement and "massive" teacher unemployment.

In fact, the only education bill Stennett said she could support this session was one that would have enhanced existing bullying and harassment laws.

The bill was held in the House through political wrangling, Jaquet said, though she expects the sponsor to bring it forward again next session.

Jaquet said state government will now be faced with the challenge of redrawing the state's 35 legislative districts. Federal law requires a bipartisan commission to redraw district boundaries every 10 years following the release of national census data. The purpose of the modification is to keep the districts roughly equal in population and ensure fair representation.

However, the process can often be controversial, as it was the last time the districts were redrawn in 2001 and the ruling went to court.

The Commission on Reapportionment will convene on June 1. The commission's six members are appointed by legislative and political party leaders, half by Republicans and half by Democrats.

Katherine Wutz:

Gov. refuses to sign Stennett bill

A flag bill sponsored by Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, became the first bill this session to be made law without the governor's signature last Wednesday. The bill outlines protocol for flying a flag over governmental buildings commemorating prisoners of war and those missing in action. While state code didn't explicitly prohibit these displays, neither did it allow it. Stennett said earlier this year that she sponsored the bill at the request of the veterans of Gooding County. She said the veterans approached her because of her connection with Army Spc. Bowe Bergdahl, a Hailey-area native captured while serving in Afghanistan. Gov. Butch Otter stated in a letter to the Senate that he did not sign the bill because it did not mention veterans hospitals, veterans cemeteries or other governmental buildings. The bill specifically provides protocol for flying the flag above the state capitol, city halls, district courts and county administrative buildings. Otter has not vetoed any bill this session. Under Idaho code, a bill can become law without the governor's signature if it is not vetoed within five days after presentation to the governor.

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