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Eye on Boise: North Idaho lawmaker favors funding roads over mental health care

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, a new member of the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee, tried unsuccessfully on Friday to eliminate funding for mental health treatment for newly released felons from next year’s state budget, saying he felt the money was needed for roads. At right is Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene. (Betsy Z. Russell)
Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, a new member of the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee, tried unsuccessfully on Friday to eliminate funding for mental health treatment for newly released felons from next year’s state budget, saying he felt the money was needed for roads. At right is Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – Funding for a justice reinvestment program to provide mental health treatment to newly released criminals was cut in half in the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee on Friday, and one North Idaho lawmaker tried unsuccessfully to eliminate it entirely.

“Given our dire need for road funding right now and the state of our highways and what we’re looking at going forward, I do not believe that there’s a pressing need for mental health care for felons right now,” said Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, a second-term representative and new member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “So I would like to remove line item 10.”

There was a pause as Dixon’s motion awaited a second; Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, tried to second it, but couldn’t because she’d already seconded the first motion for the Mental Health Services Division of the state Department of Health and Welfare, which included $5.6 million for the program, half of Gov. Butch Otter’s recommended $11.2 million.

Dixon’s motion then died for lack of a second, and the original motion passed on an 18-1 vote, with just Dixon dissenting.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said the move by a group of five finance-appropriations committee members who crafted the budget plan – who didn’t include Dixon – to cut the funding in half reflected an updated analysis of the number of probationers and parolees likely to be served in the first year.

“The reduction in the $11 million is not a reduction in need,” she said. “It really just reflects the gap analysis report, the number of individuals who were identified. We’ll probably revisit that next year.”

Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said his department’s budget request was based on an analysis conducted nearly a year ago, and the state Department of Correction did a more recent analysis, but it looked at a slightly different population to arrive at the $5.6 million figure.

Corrections officials shared that figure with the finance-appropriations committee during their budget hearing, “and unfortunately the number stuck,” Armstrong said. “The statute says if services are delivered, Health and Welfare has to deliver them, subject to funding.”

“We’ll be more focused in who we serve; we won’t be able to serve as many,” Armstrong said. “But I’m pleased that we can serve a good majority of them. The ones that need it the most will get it.”

The proposal was developed as part of Idaho’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which is seeking to both cut costs and improve public safety by reserving prison cell space for the most dangerous offenders, while moving lower-risk offenders back into communities with supervision. Felony offenders get mental health treatment while they’re in prison, but it’s cut off when they’re released – leaving them at greater risk to commit new crimes as they cope with their illnesses and changing circumstances. If Idaho had expanded its Medicaid program, those services already would have been covered with federal funds.

Armstrong said he was taken by surprise by the zero-funding proposal from Dixon.

“I don’t disagree that our infrastructure needs attention,” he said. “But I think we should wait and see what the federal government will do, because we all heard the speech the other night that suggested that funding for highway infrastructure will be a priority.”

Asked about mental health treatment for newly released felons being weighed against road work, Armstrong said, “They’re very different. I understand the struggle that JFAC has in finding money for all the priorities that are put forward. However, public safety is high priority, and we see the appropriate mental health treatment for those who have been incarcerated to be a major component of public safety.”

One gap bill pulled, another introduced

Idaho’s legislative session has finished its eighth week, and the legislative leaders’ goal to end it is March 24, leaving just three weeks. Yet, several of the session’s top issues, including the state’s health coverage gap, remain unresolved.

House Health and Welfare Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, last week withdrew his $10 million health gap bill, which was aimed at providing at least some primary care coverage to some of the 78,000 Idahoans who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidized health insurance through the state exchange, saying it didn’t have the votes to pass. But on Friday, Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, introduced similar legislation in the Senate, saying he was tired of waiting for the House.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he’s not ready to give up on the issue for this year.

“I think we had a working group put together this summer that came up with some ideas that were exclusive of Medicaid expansion,” Hill said. “I kind of think we ought to have something to look at.”

But House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said with all the uncertainty at the federal level on health care, “We’re just going to wait and see.”

Road funding talks under way

Talks have been hot and heavy between the House and Senate on transportation funding, with ideas including big bonding plans for road improvements, funding shifts and more in the works.

On Thursday, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, pulled back a bill that was coming up for a hearing to shift to road work the $17 million in highway funds that now go to the Idaho State Police, while dedicating 1 percent of state sales tax collections to ISP to replace it. After a joint leadership meeting, Moyle said, “There are a couple ideas floating around that affect whether this bill needs amended a little bit or changed a little bit.” The bill was held indefinitely.

Hill said a transportation funding package is being developed. “That’s all going to start on the Senate side,” he said.

Faith healing bills in works

Hill said a “couple of bills are still being tweaked” on Idaho’s faith healing exemption, a religious exemption from prosecution for parents who deny their kids medical care in favor of prayer, even if the children become seriously ill or die. A legislative working group held two hearings over the summer on the issue, after Gov. Butch Otter pushed legislative leaders to convene the group, but it made no recommendations.

“We’re still working on that,” Hill said. “We should have something, I think, put together next week.”

Convention call scrapped

The Senate debated for more than two hours before resoundingly rejecting the measure calling for Idaho to petition for an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to add a balanced budget amendment. At an earlier committee public hearing, 25 people spoke passionately against the idea and none in favor other than the bill’s presenters, but the committee passed it anyway.

The full Senate rejected the measure 24-11. Here’s how North Idaho senators voted:

Voting in favor: Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene.

Voting against: Sens. Dan Foreman, R-Moscow; Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene; and Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens.