BOISE – After the 2013 session ended, Gov. Butch Otter joked that he grew confident his proposal for a state-based health insurance exchange would succeed only “when that bill hit my desk.”
In reality, the Republican governor’s biggest legislative victory of the last three months began to take off back in February. That’s when a group of 16 House freshmen came out in support – to the chagrin of conservatives who painted Otter’s plan as cozying up to President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul.
Along with that win, Otter is also claiming a $20 million tax break for businesses on their personal property as another milestone for his administration. It’s not exactly the full repeal he pitched in his Jan. 7 State of the State speech, but he says what emerged was a good start.
In past sessions, Otter has taken a licking from supposed GOP allies in the House and Senate on key priorities such as his disastrous 2009 bid to raise Idaho’s gas tax and registration fees. This time, however, he had what was arguably the most successful legislative session of his seven-year gubernatorial career.
“If the 62nd session of the Legislature had been on the stock market, I think we would have gained handsomely,” Otter told reporters following Thursday’s adjournment. “I’m really proud of this legislative session.”
There was a hiccup at the end, with a disagreement in the Senate over a $1.3 billion education spending plan for 2014. The amount marks nearly half of the total $2.8 billion Idaho budget for the coming fiscal year starting in July.
The disagreement delayed adjournment by four days. But it was hardly cause for grumbling as lawmakers headed home.
Even minority Democrats, whose 13 House members provided Otter the margin of victory he needed in the exchange vote, were praising the past three months under the Capitol dome in Boise.
The House Democratic leader, Rep. John Rusche of Lewiston, lauded his majority GOP counterparts – with new House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, at the front of the line – for largely sticking to what he termed substantive matters and not veering off into divisive social issues such as the 2012 Legislature’s failed effort to require women to undergo an ultrasound examination before getting an abortion.
Rusche ticked off things he liked from the past 88 days: Tax relief for 90 percent of Idaho’s businesses; the state insurance exchange he and Otter both say will be cheaper for Idaho residents and better for Idaho insurers than the federal alternative; and an education budget that restored millions in recession-era cuts to state teacher salary funding.
In short, Rusche said, “not things we had to oppose as blatantly unconstitutional.”
That doesn’t mean the accomplishments didn’t leave significant open dockets, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, conceded after his chamber wrapped things up. He pointed out that the 2014 session’s big-ticket items are already pre-programmed to include recommendations of education reform task forces, due to meet over the summer, and the revival of Otter’s 2009 push to boost Idaho’s road and bridge funding.
There’s also the politically dicey issue of whether Idaho should expand Medicaid to cover more low-income people, another key provision of Obama’s health care law.
The possible consequences are enormous, since Idaho could shut down its own $65 million annual, county-state funded program of paying the medical bills of indigent residents – a move that would save county property taxpayers more than $470 million during the next 10 years. The federal government plans to initially pick up 100 percent of the cost of caring for more than 100,000 additional low-income people added to the Medicaid rolls.
Rusche is chagrined that nothing happened this year, a disappointment even some Republicans share.
“Had I had my druthers, I would have gone ahead now,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley.
But Wood also agreed with Otter: Any Medicaid expansion should be predicated on getting agreements from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to require new beneficiaries to pay for some of their care, to promote patient responsibility and encourage providers to focus more on outcomes, rather than providing services for which they can bill.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t in place by the end of the session,” said Wood, a doctor.
Otter dismissed the suggestion that Idaho property taxpayers are being treated unfairly, as businesses benefit from the personal property tax relief bill he just signed.
“Nobody got hosed,” Otter told reporters. “There’s no definite decision on not expanding Medicaid yet. But when we do it, I want it to go through the same process we had with personal property tax. I think because we followed a process on personal property tax, we came up with a good product.”