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Eye on Boise: Challenger faults Rep. Labrador’s 2014 vote against military budget

Betsy Russell (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Betsy Russell (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

James Piotrowski, the Democratic challenger to Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, is criticizing Labrador for his “obstructionist tactics” in Congress, including a 2014 vote against the military budget.

“I’ve been up and down this district for the last 20 years in the work that I do, and I know that people are hurting,” he said. “The obstructionist tactics are slowing down relief that regular Idahoans really need, and they need it now.”

Labrador cast the only “no” vote against the military budget in 2014; the April 30, 2014, vote on passage in the House was 416-1, according to congressional records.

Labrador said it was part of a series of “no” votes on budget bills that he cast on principle that year, because they raised spending over the previous year. He also was critical of the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Spending more money on a failed system has never fixed anything,” said a statement from his office.

The bill was the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for 2015. It included the appropriations to fund active-duty and reserve personnel in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, along with National Guard personnel, and the appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Piotrowski told the Boise Weekly, “Think of that for a moment. A vote like that demonstrates an extreme level of arrogance. The very idea of voting against our troops.”

Asked about the vote, Labrador’s office released this statement:

“Congressman Labrador promised Idahoans he would cut spending. In December 2013, Congress passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal over the congressman’s objections, gutting sequestration and raising spending by $64 billion. Because of that, the congressman opposed every appropriations bill that raised spending over the previous year, keeping his promise to Idahoans. Furthermore, the Veterans Administration has continually failed our veterans with long waits and bureaucratic red tape that hurts our veterans. Spending more money on a failed system has never fixed anything. That’s why the congressman has supported legislation to reform the VA and prioritized helping our constituents in Idaho, especially veterans, to help take care of them. Since being elected in 2010, the congressman has helped thousands of Idaho’s veterans secure benefits and get the medical care they deserve and has always prioritized supporting the individual, not the bureaucracy.”

Medicaid payments, the Constitution and public lands …

Piotrowski, a Boise attorney, was profiled in both the Idaho Statesman and the Boise Weekly last week; both newspapers noted his court fight on behalf of seriously disabled Idahoans whose level of care was sharply cut by the state Department of Health and Welfare in a change to Medicaid reimbursement levels.

Piotrowski told The Spokesman-Review in a recent interview that he pressed the case, challenging the reimbursement rate for residential habilitation services, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and though he lost there, in the end he won, as the higher reimbursement rate is now back in place.

Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker wrote that Piotrowski’s appeal in the case succeeded in 2010, but then the Legislature changed the law, and the state Department of Health and Welfare sought to cut the payments under Idaho’s Medicaid program again in 2011. Piotrowski partnered with the ACLU and sued the state, and after a long and complex legal fight, a March settlement assured 3,600 disabled Idahoans’ right to the level of care they had been receiving.

Piotrowski told Barker that he was driven not just to help the families involved, but by the Constitution. “I have to go make arguments about what the Constitution means in court to other people who are highly educated about the topic,” he said. “I feel really strongly that the Constitution needs to be enforced on a regular basis, and that’s exactly what I do.”

When I interviewed Piotrowski earlier this month, he described himself to me as a “strong constitutionalist.”

But he said the main reason he got into the race against Labrador was the public lands issue, which he called “so important here in Idaho,” saying, “I’m in this race because I’m an outdoorsman.” A longtime volunteer with Trout Unlimited, Piotrowski is concerned about the prospect of Idaho’s extensive public lands being transferred to the state or privatized. “I’m hoping that Idahoans will realize just how important that heritage of open, accessible public lands is,” he said.

Crapo, Risch press for school payments

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden are leading a bipartisan group of 29 senators calling for immediate action to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides millions in payments each year to school districts and counties in timber-dependent areas in Idaho and elsewhere that have seen their funding from federal timber harvest receipts fall sharply over the years.

The SRS program expired on Sept. 30, 2015, and final payments were received by schools in March 2016. That’s left rural schools and counties in a bind – the same bind they experienced in 2014, when the congressional authorization for the SRS program lapsed, creating big budget shortfalls.

According to a letter to Senate leaders signed by the 29 senators, “Many began preparations to halt infrastructure projects, terminate employees, cancel teacher contracts and reduce numerous other critical local services. In that instance, Congress reauthorized the SRS program retroactively. However, in many cases services had already been impacted in counties and school districts.”

That’s what the senators are seeking again now: retroactive reauthorization of the program. They’re asking that it be included in any year-end funding legislation that goes through this year.

In 2015, $28 million flowed from the program to rural schools and roads in Idaho. The program began with passage of the Craig-Wyden Act in 2000 to help counties with large tracts of federal land that had seen big drops in federal timber payments. The act created a substitute supply of money, but Congress must periodically reauthorize the payments.