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Senators introduce bill to let big trucks do 75 mph on freeways

Big trucks could drive 75 on Idaho's freeways, just like cars, under legislation introduced in the Senate Transportation Committee today at the behest of its chairman, Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene; Idaho's current truck speed limit on freeways is 65 mph. "The intent of this legislation, should it move forward, is to enhance safety by having all vehicles on the highway drive the same speed limit, thus eliminating a lot of lane changes that currently are necessary because of the differentiation in speed limits," Hammond told the committee. His bill would declare that the speed limit for big trucks would be the same as that for "other motor vehicles," not only on freeways but also in town and on state highways.

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, who owns a trucking company, said there were unsuccessful proposals in the past to move all vehicles to a 70 mph speed limit on the freeways, and to move them all to 75. "Probably the thing you need to consider is that there are a growing number of those trucks that will not do 75," Corder warned. "They're much more sophisticated than cars; they're limited by their computers and they're controlled so they can't exceed that speed because of our neighboring states that don't allow it." Trucking companies, he said, "have done extensive studies," and determined that their best fuel consumption is around 62 to 63 mph, "and that produces the least wear on tires."

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, offered a similar bill with an emergency clause. "It does have an emergency clause because this is a public safety issue," he said, "and instead of waiting until July 1st to implement this, it would seem logical because it's public safety that we'd want to implement it as quickly as we could." However, the panel opted to introduce Hammond's version instead; it'll return later for a full committee hearing. Senators on the committee said they hope to hear from experts, including ITD and the Idaho State Police, about the safety issues involved, and about how big trucks have fared under the current 65 mph speed limit as far as tickets and accidents.

Corder voted for introducing the bill, but warned he'll have questions at the hearing. "You are correct, certainly, in that the interactions between slow and more rapidly moving vehicles has always been the issue - not even the speed, it's just been the interactions." But by setting a truck speed limit that most trucks can't or won't drive, he said, "You won't be able to do what you want to do."

Medical marijuana bill introduced in House

Medical marijuana legislation was introduced in the Idaho House today, where Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, introduced HB 370 as a personal bill. He proposed similar legislation last year; it got an informational hearing from the House Health & Welfare Committee, but didn't proceed. HB 370 would permit patients with debilitating medical conditions to be dispensed up to 2 ounces of marijuana every 28 days; they'd have to get it from state-authorized "alternative treatment centers."

The bill says, "Compassion dictates that a distinction be made between medical and nonmedical uses of marijuana. Hence, the purpose of this chapter is to protect from arrest, prosecution, property forfeiture, and criminal or other penalties those patients who use marijuana to alleviate suffering from debilitating medical conditions, as well as their physicians, primary care givers and those who are authorized to produce marijuana for medical purposes." Under the measure, only patients who'd registered with the state and received a registration card could legally possess medical marijuana.

An Idaho group currently is gathering signatures for a proposed initiative to legalize medical marijuana; Trail said last year that other states' experience has shown that legislation with strict controls is preferable to a voter initiative.

Hill: Senate GOP on board to work with Dems on three new ethics proposals

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill is also responding favorably to legislative Democrats' call today for bipartisan work on three new ethics reforms they've put forth: Financial disclosure, a one-year wait before former lawmakers or public officials could register as lobbyists, and a whistleblower hotline. Hill said he's already talked with his appointees to the bipartisan ethics working group, Sens. Dean Mortimer and Mitch Toryanski, about covering those topics in addition to the establishment of a new independent state ethics commission. "I think the working group ought to discuss those things, see if they can come up with suggestions," Hill said. "I think both parties are cooperating, and trying to come up with something that'd be helpful to the state."

He added, "I'd just encourage it - I think it's good."

Democrats announced their working group appointees: Reps. Phylis King and Cherie Buckner-Webb, and Sens. Michelle Stennett and Dan Schmidt. Denney said he'd named GOP Reps. Cliff Bayer and Brent Crane, but Crane wanted to check with his dad, state Treasurer Ron Crane, before committing; the state treasurer is currently involved in a potential ethics issue over his use of a state gas card. Denney said if Rep. Crane chooses not to serve, he's thinking of maybe tabbing Rep. Vito Barbieri.

Denney says GOP will work with Dems on their 3 new ethics proposals

House Speaker Lawerence Denney had a favorable reaction today to legislative Democrats' announcement that they'll put forth three more ethics bills and they'd like to work with Republicans on them. "I think that's wise," Denney said. The GOP speaker said he'd be amenable to having the bipartisan working group that already is slated to work on legislation to create an independent state ethics commission examine the Democrats' three other proposals as well: Financial disclosure, a one-year wait before public officials or lawmakers could register as lobbyists, and a whistleblower hotline for state employees. "The financial disclosure, I do want to see it," Denney said. "I don't want the same thing come through as two years ago, that proposed to be a financial disclosure bill but exempted all these classes of people." When a financial disclosure bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2009, Denney blocked it in the House, in part because he was concerned that it didn't require disclosure of law firms' clients.

Told that the Democrats say their new disclosure bill will be more stringent than the last one, Denney said, "I'd certainly be willing to look at it."

As far as a one-year wait before lawmakers or other public officials could register as lobbyists, Denney said, "I don't have a problem with that. Let's hear it."

Dems announce three more ethics reform bills, ask GOP to work with them

Legislative Democrats today announced that they'll be proposing three additional ethics reform bills: A financial disclosure bill dubbed the "Conflict of Interest Act;" a revolving-door bill called the "Lobbyist Restriction Act" that would impose a one-year waiting period before public officials or legislators could register as lobbyists; and a "Whistleblower Reporting & Protection Act," which would strengthen Idaho's whistleblower law by adding a telephone hotline and online reporting for active or former state employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation. Complaints received under that act would be referred to the new independent ethics commission that both parties are working this year to create.

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said the Democrats are hoping that Republicans will join them in working on all three bills plus the ethics commission bill, through the bipartisan working group that's been appointed to work out a bipartisan ethics commission bill. That working group, with two members from each party in each house, likely will hold its first meeting tomorrow morning.

"The ethics commission is only the first critical step in the right direction," Malepeai said. "Idaho still lags significantly behind other states in demonstrating to people that we value integrity so much that we make it the law of the land." He noted that Democrats have been pushing for ethics reforms since 2005, but nothing has passed, though a bipartisan financial disclosure bill passed the Senate unanimously in 2009 before dying without a hearing in the House; the Democrats' proposed new disclosure bill will be "slightly more restrictive" than the 2009 measure, Malepeai said. He said Idahoans are losing trust in their lawmakers. "The need … has never been greater, and the time for reform is now," he said.

One funding bright spot…

One bright spot as far as funding in the Medicaid budget for next year: The federal matching rate for Idaho, known by the acronym FMAP, will rise from 70.23 percent to 71 percent on Oct. 1, 2012. That means the blended FMAP rate used for budgeting will rise from 69.86 percent in the fiscal 2012 budget to 70.81 percent in the fiscal 2013 budget. The result: A drop of $15.7 million in Idaho's general-fund spending requirement for Medicaid for fiscal 2013.

On the down side, hospital and nursing home assessments adding up to $36 million that helped boost Medicaid to avoid losing federal matching funds this year are sunsetting; Gov. Butch Otter is proposing replacing $20 million of that next year from an excess cash reserve at the Division of Veterans Services, and continuing the rest for one more year.

Overall savings on track from last year’s Medicaid cuts, H&W reports…

Overall, Idaho's Medicaid program is making the savings anticipated from program cuts in last year's HB 260, division administrator Paul Leary told JFAC this morning, though not every cut has yielded the expected savings. Examples: Cutting non-emergency dental coverage for adults will meet or exceed the anticipated $1.7 million savings, but cutting podiatry and optometry services other than those needed for chronic care hasn't yielded the anticipated $800,000 savings; enough people with chronic conditions are needing those services that there haven't been savings. A reduction in psychosocial rehabilitation services by one hour per week is on track to save the anticipated $2.27 million or more; cuts in pharmacy reimbursements and adult developmental disabilities services also are saving the anticipated $2 million each or more. A plan to establish enforceable co-payments hasn't yet yielded savings.

Lawmakers begin examining Medicaid budget

The Medicaid budget, which makes up 81 percent of the Department of Health & Welfare budget request for next year, is up next; lawmakers will hear presentations and discuss it over the next two hours. The request for next year is for $481 million in state general funds, which would be 24.3 percent of the program; 65.6 percent, or $1.3 billion, would come from federal funds. Of the total $1.9 billion budget from all funds, 96.5 percent would go to benefits; just 0.7 percent to personnel and 2.8 percent to operating costs.

Paul Leary, Medicaid administrator for the state, said Idaho's staffing for Medicaid has dropped by 8 percent since fiscal year 2009, though the number of people eligible has grown by 25 percent. No additional positions are requested for next year.

Some lawmakers concerned about cost of food stamp distribution changeover

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he's concerned that the ongoing cost of $220,000 a year, half of which would come from state funds, is too high for the changeover from single-day distribution of food stamps to the new 10-day staggered system. Said Wood, "$220,000 seems like a lot for an ongoing effort. Now I may be able to see that cost for the first year. … I just am concerned that that's a little bit of a generous price tag for an ongoing effort and that we may be able to trim that."

Russ Barron, Division of Welfare administrator, said the estimate is based on the state's previous experience; when it switched from a 5-day distribution to the single day in August of 2009, it was able to move three staffers off the program to other work. Now, with much higher numbers of Idahoans on food stamps, it's estimating it will take four more workers to run the new system, one more than back in '09.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair, asked Barron, "Have the food stamp numbers peaked?" Barron responded, "No, they have not peaked. They're still growing at 6 percent a year."

Guv’s budget includes shift to multi-day distribution of food stamp benefits

Gov. Butch Otter's budget recommendation for next year includes the proposal from the state Department of Health & Welfare and the Northwest Grocers Association to shift the state's food-stamp distribution program from single-day distribution on the 1st of each month to a staggered, 10-day distribution, to do away with the mad rush at Idaho's grocery stores every month on the 1st. The grocers say that's led to $1 million in spoiled food being thrown out over the last two years. Lawmakers still must approve it for the change to take place; it's tentatively planned for May. The grocers are putting up $100,000 for the changeover; there would be no general-fund cost to the state until 2014, when the ongoing cost to the state would be $110,000 per year. The remainder of the cost to make the change would be covered by federal funds.

A look at who’s on food stamps in Idaho…

This morning, as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee continues its week of health and human services budget hearings, the Department of Health & Welfare's Division of Welfare is first up. Administrator Russ Barron shared some stats about the 235,000 Idahoans now receiving food stamps, which are administered by the division. Nearly half - 48 percent - are children. Of the adults, 9 percent are disabled, and 3 percent are seniors over age 65; two-thirds have children at home.

Barron described a typical situation: A family of four, in which the father has lost his full-time job, and is working part-time at $9 an hour; the mother is working at $7 an hour; and neither employer offers health benefits. With average costs for rent, utilities and transportation to work, "A family living in poverty has little left to pay for food, child care and especially health care needs," Barron told lawmakers. "Our program helps families to maintain their stability in the workforce."

AP: Bill would boot Occupy Boise from state property

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Some Idaho lawmakers want to bid adieu to "Occupy Boise," whose campers erected tents on state-managed land surrounding the old Ada County Courthouse starting in November to protest social and economic inequality. On Monday, House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke said a bill to forbid camping on the Capitol Mall and nearby state property could be up for consideration as soon as Wednesday. Bedke says it's modeled after a Boise ordinance outlawing camping on city property, adding that the right place for people to exercise free speech is on the Capitol steps, not a permanent tent city on taxpayer-owned land. Even so, Occupy Boise's police liaison Dean Gunderson fears Bedke's proposal is designed to quell his movement's right to speak its mind, something protected by the U.S. and Idaho constitutions.

Report: Sparse Idaho college scholarship money has gone unspent

Among neighboring states, Idaho ranks lowest for state and local financial aid per college student, according to a new report out today from the state's Office of Performance Evaluations. Yet, more than $1.3 million in scholarship funds that Idaho lawmakers appropriated in the past two years has gone unspent, as the Office of the State Board of Education reverted the money back to the general fund rather than spending it on scholarships. “While these scholarship moneys, in excess of $1.3 million, were reverted back to the General Fund and were not lost, per se, they were not used for their intended scholarship purposes,” wrote legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith in a letter included in the report. She said her office supports the report's recommendation that the state Board of Education work with the Legislature to review current appropriations. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “It's hard enough to get funds into those scholarships, and of course when it reverts we use it, but then you can't get it back.”

The report, which looked into reducing barriers to post-secondary education in Idaho, suggested better coordination of school counselors statewide and reducing student-to-counselor ratios, which now exceed national guidelines. It also called for more need-based aid for college students; better tracking of whether Idaho students go on to higher education; and better coordination of workforce needs with degree programs through the Department of Labor and the State Board of Education. The state board has set a goal to have 60 percent of Idahoans aged 25-34 have a college degree or at least a one-year certificate by 2020. That was based on a national study estimating that by 2018, 60 percent of jobs will require such a degree. But the report found that in Idaho, most jobs actually don't require such degrees. “Idaho has continued to grow in low-wage, low-skill jobs over the past ten years,” the report found. The full report will be posted online here shortly.

Poll: 87% of Idahoans favor ban on texting-while-driving

A new statewide survey shows that 87 percent of Idahoans favor a ban on texting while driving – including 78 percent who say they'd strongly support it. “It's higher than we would've guessed,” said Dave Carlson, spokesman for AAA of Idaho, which commissioned the statewide poll by Riley Research Associates of Portland. Yet Idaho lawmakers, who've struggled with the issue for the past two years, still haven't passed anything and Idaho doesn't ban texting while driving, unlike at least 30 other states.

“I've already got a texting bill sitting on my desk that I had drawn up,” said Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene. “I hope we can move forward with it, just to take care of those concerns.”

Two years ago, a texting-while-driving ban was killed on the final night of Idaho's legislative session, despite having won majority support in both houses, when then-Rep. Raul Labrador, now a congressman, used a parliamentary maneuver to require a two-thirds vote in the House. The bill got a 37-30 majority - not two-thirds. Last year, Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, proposed compromise legislation he described as “truly a piece of sausage” that would have banned texting if it distracted the driver, but not if it didn't; that didn't pass.

“I think we've tripped over the details,” Carlson said. “There's been a naysayer for every bill that's been brought, including, as you might recall, AAA last year, because we were hoping for something a little bit stronger.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho grocers plead for food-stamp distribution fix after $1M in spoiled food

Idaho's grocery stores are putting up $100,000 of their own money and asking state lawmakers to change back to multi-day distribution of food stamps each month, after having to throw out a million dollars worth of food over the last two years because of the crush of food-stamp recipients all descending on the stores at once. “It's just grossly inefficient and wasteful,” said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocers Association. “The last two years my industry's lost over a million dollars in spoiled food over this, just in Idaho.”

The reason: When the crowds hit on the 1st of the month, some people abandon their full carts and give up because the lines get so long. All the frozen food in the carts can't be restocked and goes to waste. Idaho is one of just a handful of states in the nation using a single-day distribution for food stamps each month; it's the only one in the Northwest. Now, the state Department of Health and Welfare has a plan to shift to a staggered, 10-day distribution, which could start in May – but it'll cost more. The grocers have agreed to foot $100,000 of the change-over cost, and the state wouldn't have to pay any more until 2014, but lawmakers are being asked for approval now. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Senate panel hears roadkill recovery rule

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho's road-killed wildlife could become fair game. The Senate Resources Committee on Monday got a glimpse of a proposed rule allowing legal recovery of big-game species run over by cars. Right now, animals that draw the short straw during vehicle-wildlife encounters belong to Idaho. With proposed changes, drivers or anybody else who happens upon a clobbered critter could recover it, provided they report their serendipitous find to the Department of Fish and Game. The changes are a response to northern Idaho Republican Rep. Dick Harwood's efforts to legalize harvest of valuable fur-bearing animals like bobcats, foxes, bears and mountain lions run over by cars. Fish and Game's Sharon Kiefer reminded lawmakers this would be for accidental collisions only ― they're not opening the door for drivers to just hit wildlife.

Anti-bullying bill introduced

Last year, legislation to beef up Idaho's anti-bullying laws, in party by clarifying that school officials are "authorized and expected to intervene" in cases of bullying, harassment or intimidation of a student, passed the Senate with just three "no" votes and cleared the House Education Committee amid much debate, but never came up for a vote in the full House. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee has voted unanimously to reintroduce the legislation.

Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, who made the motion, said, "What we have doesn't seem to be working, and we need to fix it." Kim Kane, executive director of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network, who presented the bill to the committee, said, "Every parent has the right to expect that their child will be safe at school. … We are hoping this year there will be a clearer understanding of what bullying is and what this piece of legislation does." The measure is identical to last year's SB 1105. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said she talked with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle over the summer about the measure, "and he said he didn't see a problem." The bill will return to the Senate committee for a hearing before proceeding further.

Prosecutors introduce bill to bring drive-by shootings under felony murder rule

Idaho's state prosecutors association got legislation introduced today to add drive-by shootings to the state's "felony murder rule," meaning killings committed in drive-by shootings could be charged as first-degree murder even if the shooter didn't have the specific intent to kill the person he or she killed. That specific intent requirement is waived for certain crimes that fall under the felony murder rule; those now include aggravated battery against a child under 12, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, mayhem and acts of terrorism.

"Prosecutors believe this is a very serious crime," Holly Koole of the Idaho State Prosecutors Association told the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. "There is an innocent life that is taken, and the most we can charge now is involuntary manslaughter, which is not murder."

The prosecutors have proposed similar legislation before, but this time, they limited the rule to situations "where a reasonable person would know or have reason to know that such building was occupied." It also applies to shooting into occupied vehicles. "That makes it a little clearer as to the intent of the person," Koole said. Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, an attorney, said he thought the change was an improvement, and he supported introducing the bill.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, questioned the bill's fiscal impact statement of no impact. "There would be some impact because people would be spending longer time in jail, isn't that correct, if convicted?" he asked. Koole responded that currently such killings, which are very rare in Idaho, would draw up to 10 years in jail, so the cost difference wouldn't be large. The bill now can advance to a full committee hearing.

Idaho marks MLK Day/Idaho Human Rights Day

"We've made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus," Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared today at the state's official celebration of Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day in the state Capitol rotunda. The holiday, he said, is "a time for all Americans to reaffirm their commitment to the basic principles that underly our Constitution: Equal treatment and justice for all," reading from the state's official proclamation declaring the holiday today.

Earlier, hundreds marched from Boise State University down Capitol Boulevard to a rally on the Statehouse steps, chanting, "Two, four, six, eight, Idaho's too great for hate," and carrying signs with slogans including, "Keep his dream alive," "Freedom," and "Add the Words." That's the slogan for a campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho's human rights law, which provides protections against discrimination based on race, religion or disability. Legislation to add the words to the law was introduced last year, but didn't advance. At least 20 states, including Washington, already ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Former longtime Idaho Human Rights Commission director Marilyn Shuler gave the keynote address at today's official ceremony in the rotunda, entitled, "Have we gotten there yet?" She noted, "Dr. King was born 83 years ago, the same year as Anne Frank." Both are honored in Idaho today, through the official state holiday, and through the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, which Shuler noted is "visited every year by countless schoolchildren who come to learn about basic human rights."

Said Shuler, "We have a chance to ask ourselves a simple question: Have we gotten there yet? And a second question: What should I be doing to see that we get there?" She recounted the history of human rights in Idaho, including early low points like the Idaho Legislature banning marriage between caucasians and people of Japanese ancestry, and high points like the creation of the Idaho Human Rights Commission in 1969 to enforce anti-discrimination laws. "It's worth thinking about how far we still have to go," Shuler said. "We know we haven't gotten there." She pointed out that the state still doesn't ban discrimination, including in housing and employment, based on sexual orientation, and noted disadvantages faced by Idaho's largest minority, its Hispanic population. "We still need to do better … in our state," Shuler said. "Each one of us, every day, has a chance to make a difference."

Future enlargement of Medicaid could remove need for much of CAT fund…

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, asked state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong what the cost will be once 100,000 more people are eligible for Medicaid in Idaho in 2014, under the federal health care reform law. "Because of the way the law was written, the newly eligible individuals, i.e. the single male, it starts out with the federal government paying 100 percent of that cost," Armstrong said. "So we don't have a match that first year." Then, over five years, a state match would phase in, he said.

"Theoretically that expansion wouldn't cost us anything as a state. But that's not what happens, because there's a woodworking effect," Armstrong said. People who are newly eligible tend to come in along with others who already were eligible, like their kids, but who they hadn't previously signed up. "Those are not newly eligible categories, those are historically eligible categories. So our estimate is that there will be about $19 million of cost to the state of Idaho in 2014 because of this rise in eligibility." However, Armstrong noted, "We could say that that $19 million is offset by the fact that the CAT fund is estimated, between 80 and 95 percent of those dollars are for people who now would be eligible for Medicaid. So globally for the state of Idaho, for general funds, we would see a reduction in costs between the various pieces."

People who now turn to Idaho's catastrophic health care fund would become eligible for Medicaid, so the state would no longer have to fund their care through the CAT fund, which is 100 percent state-funded.

Hagedorn asked how much the state would have to pay through Medicaid eventually for the expanded eligibility group. Armstrong said, "It becomes significant. My recollection was that we'll be in the $100 million range, I think, in time," though he noted that that wouldn't be until 2020. "I'll give you the chart," he said. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, "Several of us may like to see that chart." Armstrong noted, "Remember, it is just a guess," to which Cameron responded, "As is every bit of that whole program."

Armstrong: Idaho’s challenge: How to make Medicaid sustainable

Idaho's big challenge, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers this morning, is this: "Where do we go from here to make Medicaid sustainable?" He said it's unrealistic to think Idaho can continue to make pricing and benefit reductions to balance the budget. Instead, the state should look toward a new managed-care type model designed to improve patient outcomes, accessibility and coordination of care, "especially for high-cost participants with multiple conditions." Armstrong said the answer will require "collaboration and compromise from all stakeholders," and there's no single solution that works for every state.

The Department of Health & Welfare's budget request for next year is $2.4 billion in total funds, of which $616.8 million, or 25.4 percent, would come from state general funds. Of that $2.4 billion total, $1.98 billion - 81.5 percent - is in Medicaid, the program that provides health coverage for the poor and disabled.

State could end first-of-month food stamp rush at grocery stores, but at a cost

Food stamp benefit payments are up more than 380 percent in Idaho since 2007, according to state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong. That's led to huge rushes at Idaho grocery stores on the first of the month, when recipients get their payments. H&W is working with the region's grocers on a plan to move to a multi-day issuance system for the payments, rather than the current single-day issuance, but the current system is the cheapest. The initial changeover wouldn't create any general fund cost, Armstrong said, but it would create maintenance costs of $220,000 a year, and the state would need to commit to funding $110,000 a year of that with general funds starting in fiscal year 2014. A new multi-day issuance system also would require the equivalent of four more state staffers.

H&W worker caseloads soar, turnover is up, workers leaving for better pay

Idaho's Department of Health & Welfare, the state's largest agency, has seen its employees' workload soar in recent years as caseloads have risen, it's had furloughs, staff reduction and office closures due to budget cuts, and turnover was 13.6 percent in fiscal year 2011, Director Dick Armstrong told JFAC this morning. "The average pay increase for people leaving DHW for private employment was 43 percent last year," Armstrong told lawmakers, urging them to consider funding an increase in state worker pay. "We cannot afford to lose our high-performing and skilled workers," he said.

In 2011, 25 percent of the department's departing employees had exemplary job performance ratings, Armstrong noted, while only 1 percent had negative evaluation ratings. "High performing employees are exiting," he said.

CAT fund cases dropped in fy ‘11 due to changes, but are growing again now…

Idaho's catastrophic health care program, also known as the CAT fund, had 1,286 cases approved in fiscal year 2011, at an average cost per case of $24,329, CAT  board chairman Roger Christensen told JFAC this morning. The number of new cases dropped slightly in 2011, after years of sharp increases, but Christensen said so far this year, they're going up again. "We are still seeing a fairly significant increase in caseloads, and I think that's due to the economy," he told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning.

The program pays for health care for indigent Idahoans, after counties cover the first $11,000 per case as a deductible; Christensen said it'll be seeking a $17 million supplemental appropriation this year to fully cover costs, after this year's state appropriation was set at just $22.2 million, though costs were estimated at $31.6 million.

Legislative changes in the past three years have helped stem the growth of the program, Christensen told lawmakers. Among them: The increase in the counties' deductible from $10,000 to $11,000 in 2009; and requirements to first submit applications to Health & Welfare for a determination if the patient qualifies for Medicaid. That move alone has meant $21 million in what Christensen first said is "savings," then corrected himself, and said, "transfer to another program." The state pays 100 percent of CAT program costs; it pays only about 30 percent of Medicaid costs, as the federal government picks up 70 percent. As a result, Christensen said he estimates the state has saved between $6 million and $9.7 million. "A much higher percentage of those individuals who would have qualified for Medicaid qualified," he said.

Other changes: New board members added under a bill passed in 2010 pointed out the CAT fund was covering weight-reduction surgeries, which most health insurance doesn't; that's no longer covered. "There have been a few cases and now they've been not approved because of that," Christensen said. "These are policy decisions the Legislature has to make. What drives the cost in this type of a program, is the qualifications for the people, the individuals that are covered, and the types of things that the Legislature wants to cover." That legislation also clarified that the program is a "last resource," so there can be no "balance billing" to offset its payments.

When the CAT fund makes payments for an indigent patient, it filed liens against the patient to recover the funds; in fiscal year 2011, it collected $2.3 million in reimbursements, while it paid out $34.9 million in payments to medical providers. Christensen said reimbursements are down as economic conditions leave people with less ability to pay. The program also received $152,832 from seat belt citations in fiscal year 2011.

Lawmakers in session on holiday Monday

The Idaho Legislature doesn't take holidays when it's in session, so lawmakers will be at work on Monday despite the Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day holiday. Among the events scheduled: JFAC will hold a hearing the CAT fund and begin delving into budgets for the Department of Health & Welfare; numerous House and Senate committees will meet to consider administrative rules or introducing legislation; Gov. Butch Otter will issue a proclamation in honor of the holiday at noon in the 2nd floor rotunda, and Marilyn Shuler will give a keynote speech, at a public celebration that also will include music and is sponsored by the Idaho Department of Labor and the Idaho Human Rights Commission; Boise State University students will march to the Capitol for a human rights day rally on the steps, also at noon, followed by an afternoon of volunteer service; and a "Kitchen Table Economics" session, sponsored by the Idaho Jobs Coalition, will run from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium, featuring retired UI Professor Stephen Cooke addressing the wage gap between Idaho and other states.

Among news reports from the weekend: Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey looks into the the scramble set off by Gov. Butch Otter's call for $45 million in unspecified tax cuts, in an article that also notes that the House and Senate tax committees are planning a joint hearing on the issue after the Legislature sets its official revenue estimate Jan. 24; Statesman business reporter Audrey Dutton's report here on Idaho's request to the feds for one-year extension on the January 2014 deadline to set up a state-run health insurance exchange; and Statesman reporter Kathleen Kreller's article here on how "mental holds" by law enforcement in Idaho have spiked since Idaho cut funding for adult mental health services. You can ready my Sunday column here, with tidbits from the legislative session's first week; and the Idaho State Journal reports that Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, will no longer claim the higher $122 per diem that out-of-area legislators receive for maintaining a second home in Boise for sleeping on his Boise office couch; click below for that report.

The week that was…

On tonight's "Idaho Reports," I join BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby, AP reporter Jessie Bonner and host Greg Hahn to discuss the events of this first week of the Legislature, from school funding to ethics; the hour-long program also features Hahn's interview with three lawmakers, Reps. Ken Roberts and Grant Burgoyne and Sen. Tim Corder, about possible tax cuts; a discussion of Gov. Butch Otter's "IGEM" proposal with Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Roberts; IPTV reporter Aaron Kunz's analysis of the lack of mention of environmental issues in this year's State of the State speech; and more.

The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television; it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time, 10 a.m. Pacific; and will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 6 p.m. After it airs, "Idaho Reports" also can be viewed online at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.

The ethics tit-for-tat…

Click below to read AP reporter John Miller's full story on today's tit-for-tat over ethics among Republicans and Democrats, as they move haltingly toward a bipartisan effort to craft a bill setting up Idaho's first independent state ethics commission. The bipartisan House-Senate working group that will work on the bill is expected to start meeting next week.

Rusche: ‘This is about the institution’

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, had this response to Speaker Lawerence Denney's statement today about Democrats' rhetoric on ethics: "My response to that is that if there are things that we are doing that impact people's confidence in government, we should be called to account." Said Rusche, "This isn't about individuals. This is about the institution and our government and how we serve our people."

Rusche said both parties are moving forward with a working group to develop bipartisan agreement on a new ethics commission bill. "I certainly hope that doesn't disrupt the progress that we've made," he said. "It takes all of us pushing together, I know that."

‘Corruption’ Rhetoric Miffs Denney

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney (pictured) is lashing back at some Democrats who have been criticizing what they call a “culture of corruption” among Republican officials, saying some Democratic lawmakers, too, have stepped across ethical lines. “Both sides – Republicans and Democrats – make mistakes or even cross the line into the camp of ethical lapses of judgment,” Denney  wrote in a statement. “Both sides are looking at reforming the process to, as is best possible, reduce the chance of partisanship when looking into complaints of ethical violations”/Betsy Russell, Eye On Boise. More here.

Question: Do you think there's a "culture of corruption" in the Idaho Legislature?

Denney blasts Dems for ‘culture of corruption’ rhetoric

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney is lashing back at some Democrats who have been criticizing what they call a "culture of corruption" among Republican officials, saying some Democratic lawmakers, too, have stepped across ethical lines. "Both sides – Republicans and Democrats – make mistakes or even cross the line into the camp of ethical lapses of judgment," Denney  wrote in a statement. "Both sides are looking at reforming the process to, as is best possible, reduce the chance of partisanship when looking into complaints of ethical violations." Click below for his full statement.