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Idaho Legislature adjourns after 81 days

By John Miller

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 29 2012 8:55 p.m. MDT

Idaho Sen. Edgar Malepeai, who isn't seeking reelection, enjoys his last day on the floor of the senate much to the amusement of Sen. Les Bock, left, Thursday, March 29, 2012 in Boise, Idaho. Thursday was the final day of the 2012 legislative session.

The Idaho Statesman, Joe Jaszewski) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — The Legislature adjourned Thursday after 81 days of intense debate on ultrasounds for abortion seekers, ousting Occupy Boise — and dedicating $35 million in tax cuts for corporations and top earners, a plan passed in the final hours.

The ultrasound bill stalled in the House without a hearing; supporters promise its return in 2013.

Occupiers' tents remain on state property, after a judge stymied Republicans' efforts to remove them.

But tax cuts cleared the Senate in the final hours, part of a compromise package negotiated with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter that includes $35 million to restore teacher salaries and $34 million in rainy-day savings.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill was excited to finish a session with an Idaho taxpayer-generated surplus, a marked departure from recession years when lawmakers slashed budgets or relied in federal stimulus to shore them up. Supporters said cutting Idaho's top tax rate to 7.4 percent would lure companies looking to relocate.

"This is a good problem to have," said Hill, R-Rexburg, on how to divvy up surplus funds. "The last three years, we've been debating where we can make additional cuts. This year, we're debating where we can put this small increase. I'd rather be having that debate."

The 28-7, party-line tax-cut vote late Thursday belied heated discussion that preceded it. Democrats decried the cuts, on grounds that they'll go to high earners — and don't amount to much.

A family of four earning $100,000 annually will see only $71 in tax relief, according to state calculations.

"In many instances, people will never know they got this," predicted Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise.

Republican Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, originally opposed the cuts but changed his vote to avoid being the lone GOP lawmaker to side with Democrats.

Corder favored saving more money, on concern Idaho's economy is still too fragile for tax relief. "I made my point, that it just wasn't the right thing to do," he said, on his last-minute switch.

Part of the compromise that led to Thursday's adjournment, Idaho lawmakers agreed to restore about $35 million to teacher salaries over the next five years. That's money cut to help pay for public schools chief Tom Luna's "Students Come First" reforms passed in 2011.

"We've kept our promise," Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene. "The first revenues that came back into the education budget would go back into teacher pay."

Luna, who will spend the months until November trying to fend off teachers-union-backed ballot measures asking voters to throw out his reforms, also backed the Legislature's move to restore teacher salary funding.

"Future shifts have been cancelled altogether," he said, in a statement.

On the session's final day, Republicans pushed through changes to Senate rules, in part to better define when lawmakers must declare potential conflicts of interests. This came after Democrats complained Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, violated disclosure rules by not telling lawmakers he'd leased land to an oil and gas exploration company — while voting on a bill backed by the company.

Pearce avoided censure by lawmakers when charges were dismissed.

But Democrats complained the Senate's changes actually weakened ethics rules, by making any future complaint secret until a lawmaker panel determines it's valid. The minority party began the session calling for creation of an independent ethics commission, but wound up empty-handed.

"What we need is a statutory change, not some window dressing," said Sen. Les Bock, D-Garden City.

Republicans contend alterations will bolster disclosure, while respecting lawmakers' dignity from frivolous accusations.

"We saw some problems," said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene. "If you want to make further improvements down the road, go ahead and do that. But let's not continue to beat this dead horse."

Another issue that dominated discussions since lawmakers began the session Jan. 9 re-emerged briefly Thursday to cause a stir.

Senators had just voted to close the loophole that allowed Occupy Boise to set up its tents at the old Ada County Courthouse when one of the protest group's supporters was escorted from the building because she wore a knit stocking cap — a symbol of the Occupy movement — that Idaho State Police deemed a violation of decorum.

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