Rotunda flag 2021

A giant Idaho flag hangs in the rotunda of the state Capitol for the 2021 Idaho legislative session.

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This year’s Idaho legislative session, the longest in state history, was marked by dissension and bitter debates over hot-button issues, yet it yielded some startlingly major accomplishments — including the biggest transportation infrastructure investment in state history — along with a slew of missed opportunities.

“Despite a lot of noise, distractions, and of course the unfortunate, unprecedented duration of this year’s legislative session, we were able to act on the issues that matter most in the day-to-day lives of the people we serve,” Gov. Brad Little said in a May 19 statement.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, had a much different take.

“Never has it been more clear that there is a total disconnect between the agenda of the Republican politicians running this Statehouse and the majority of Idahoans, regardless of their party,” she said. “Idahoans value education, and they wanted meaningful property tax help. And that is the opposite of what GOP leadership delivered this session.”

Supermajority Republican lawmakers spent much of the record 122-day session rehashing splits with GOP Gov. Brad Little over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and debating cutting education funding — the Legislature’s main charge under the Idaho Constitution — due to what turned out to be unfounded reports of “indoctrination” of students into a leftist agenda at Boise State University.

An investigation released last week showed a report of a BSU student being harassed over race during a class was entirely unfounded, turning up no evidence of any such incident. “No student specifically raised concerns about being indoctrinated or being instructed on the tenets of ‘critical race theory,’” the investigation found; it was conducted by the Hawley Troxell law firm.

Nevertheless, lawmakers cut $2.5 million from the higher education budget over the concerns during this year’s session, including a $1.5 million cut specifically for BSU.

The state was awash in cash, with a record budget surplus building amid far better than expected economic performance coming out of the pandemic, even as hundreds of millions in federal aid flowed out to states including Idaho.

That led to a buildup of the largest rainy-day funds ever in state history – lawmakers even lifted the cap on the state’s main rainy-day fund, the Budget Stabilization Fund, from 10% of the state general fund budget up to 15%.

But among the missed opportunities were failure to address a widespread outcry across the state for property tax relief, particularly for homeowners in the state’s fastest-growing communities; no move to invest in funding for optional full-day kindergarten in every Idaho school district, despite near-universal support and a rare opportunity to commit millions in ongoing funding from the general fund due to the state’s unprecedented revenue position; and no consideration of lifting the state’s 6% sales tax from groceries, or raising the income tax credit that offsets that for residents. Lawmakers also allowed tens of millions in federal aid to go unclaimed. That included $40 million for voluntary COVID-19 testing in Idaho’s public and private schools next year, which the House rejected in an unprecedented move, along with numerous other federal aid proposals.

You can read my full story here at (subscription required), or pick up today's Sunday/Monday edition of the Idaho Press; it's on the front page.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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