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LaBeau: Businesses support state, rather than federal, health insurance exchange

Alex LaBeau, head of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, said it's difficult for private businesses involved in different aspects of health care to agree on many issues, but they agree that "yes, the state should have a state-run exchange." He said, "We have to deal with the reality that has been put in front of us, which is a federal law that impacts the residents in this state. … We support having a state-based exchange."

LaBeau compared the issue to environmental regulation. "I can tell you that it is a lot easier to deal with the state's DEQ than it is the EPA. The same principle applies here," he said. "I'd rather deal with Director Deal than deal with HHS." He said accepting "ready-made money available" from the federal government to set up the exchange only makes sense. "We as employers do not like uncertainty," LaBeau said. "Having a state-run exchange gives us a lot more confidence." Idaho employers could have some say in a state-run exchange, but not in a federal one, he said. Not moving forward with a state exchange, he said, could hurt job creation in the state. Regardless of ideology, he said, "There are very fundamental pragmatic issues that business needs to deal with this year."

Barbieri on health exchange: ‘It’s socialism’

Idaho Rep. Vito Barbieri declared, "This health care mandate is not good for the nation. It's socialism. … A socialist America is a broken America." Speaking on a panel about a proposed state health insurance exchange at the AP Legislative Preview today, Barbieri said, "It's a fundamental ideological principle: Can bureaucracy help deliver health care, let alone set costs?" He said he thinks it can't. "A bureaucracy will, as it grows, propose more rules, more regulations, they will use the rules of course to increase their power over time and they will devour competition, which is what a bureaucracy does," Barbieri declared. "Rules and regulations are the means of achieving these goals, and it will be used - that's what a bureaucracy does."

Barbieri called the idea of a state health insurance exchange "vacuous" and said the feds will still dictate everything. "A bureaucratic takeover of the health care system, and Idaho is running full-on into its arms," he said. "Allow the private sector to deal with it."

Deal: Idaho health exchange would work even if fed law overturned

Idaho state Insurance Director Bill Deal says even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules the federal health care reform legislation unconstitutional, the state health insurance exchange that Idaho has in the works still could serve Idaho citizens and help them shop for the most affordable and appropriate health insurance. "It does not go to waste, because we can move that same platform and provide truly Idaho exchange," Deal said. He's the lead-off speaker on a three-person panel at the AP Legislative Preview about the proposed health insurance exchange, a hot issue in the upcoming legislative session. Also on the panel: Alex LaBeau, head of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, and Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, sponsor of last year's health care nullification legislation.

Deal said, as Gov. Butch Otter noted earlier today, "We're kind of held hostage here," in that if the state doesn't meet federal requirements, it could lose its favorable 70-30 federal match rate for Medicaid funding. If that were to drop to 50-50, Idaho would lose $300 million it now relies on for health care for its low-income and disabled citizens. He said legislation to establish the exchange has been drafted and will be presented to the Legislature's joint Health Care Task Force tomorrow.

Barbieri said he opposes accepting federal grant funds to set up an exchange. "I'm very concerned about the damage that this mandate does to constitutional provisions," he said. "Idaho can't afford this mandate," which he referred to as a "monster" with unknown costs. "We should be awaiting the Supreme Court decision," he said. "The state simply cannot pay every citizen's health care."

On playing politics…

Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai said, "This is not a time for us to play the politics, it's a time for us to look at what's best for Idahoans." Yet, it's also a year in which every seat in the Legislature is up for election, legislative districts are in flux due to redistricting, and the state's first closed GOP primary is looming in May. Asked how they can avoid playing politics this year, legislative leaders from both parties had an array of answers.

"I don't think it's going to be hard," said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. "You develop a … vision of where you want to go, and that means you have to talk to each other. … You ought to agree where you're going: Good jobs, sound educational system, middle class that's strong and vibrant, place you can bring your kids back to for jobs and schools. All of those things are values we should share."

Said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, "I'm just not that cynical about it. I think that most legislators, most of the time, are interested in doing what's best for the citizens of Idaho. … We're not enemies, we're friends and we're public servants, and we want to do what's best for the state of Idaho. Occasionally you see some political games being played. … I think you'll see some good collaboration."

Malepeai said the Legislature is like a sports team. "We have a goal to win, and there are many plays in the play book. If a team doesn't work as a team, we're not going to win the game."

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, "There are politics played in every session, and certainly I don't expect this to be any different, but I don't expect this to be a lot worse than normal." When his comment was greeted with laughter, Denney said, "I really don't." He added, "If there's a certain individual that is standing up trying to play to the television camera … we know it and they're pretty quickly ridiculed and set down on their own."

Cig tax hike ‘single most effective way to stop youths from smoking’; reservation sales also targeted

If Idaho's going to consider raising its cigarette tax, which is among the lowest in the nation, House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, the state also should address sales on Indian reservations in the state and sales over the Internet. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, "I do think there's a way we can reach an agreement with the tribes, similar to what we did with the fuel tax, that advantages both sides." That might require tribes to raise their own cigarette taxes to cover smoking-related reservation health costs, he said.

Rusche, a physician, said, "It is the single most significant public health effort we could make. … There's nothing that compares to it, education or other programs - increasing the cost of cigarettes is the single most effective way to stop youths from smoking."

Legislative leaders from both parties favor ethics reforms

Both Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai and House Minority Leader John Rusche are calling for new ethics laws this year, and House Speaker Lawerence Denney indicated he's interested, too. "Throughout the year we've seen behavior that is unbecoming of public servants," Malepeai declared, saying Democratic lawmakers are looking at introducing major ethics legislation. He called for both parties to "work together to bring about some sweeping changes in our ethics law so that we can deal with those issues in the future."

Rusche said, "People want what government is necessary to be focused on the common good and not on personal gain. So we'll be trying to address programs and proposals that restore some of the faith that people have lost in government." Among the moves being considered: Establishing a state ethics commission, which Idaho lacks; and looking at enacting financial disclosure and revolving-door legislation, which Idaho also lacks.

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, asked if the majority has been contacted by the minority about the issue, said, "They haven't talked to us yet but I suspect that they will." Rusche said he's hoping both parties can work together. Said Denney, "I am certainly willing to work with the minority on that." Malepeai said the intent should be to deal with "things that don't smell right in public service."

Denney said, "I'm willing to talk about an ethics committee or an ethics commission outside of the Legislature," in part because when lawmakers themselves handle ethics issues, it's difficult for "the public (to) have the confidence that we did the right thing. I think if there were an independent body out there to look at the facts, that it might actually be a good thing."

Hill: Lawmakers’ success depends on input they get from citizens

Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill told reporters at the AP Legislative Preview today, "I think it's going to be a good session, for several reasons - one, the economy is improving." Second, he said, in this second year of the electoral cycle, lawmakers know one another a little better - and are thus less likely to waste time with ideas that won't be successful. Third, he said, it's a presidential election year, and that always means people in general are more attuned to politics, and lawmakers will hear more from them. "Our success depends a great deal on the feedback and the input we get from the citizens of the state," Hill said, kicking off a panel of legislative leaders from both parties.

Otter on endowment investments: ‘These are the assets that we have’

Asked about possible legislation regarding the state Land Board and endowment investments that compete with private business, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said, "If the effort is to limit, then I think you've got to change the Constitution." The Constitution requires endowment lands to be managed "for the long-term financial best interest of the beneficiaries - there is no limitation," he said. "I think that there is a philosophical limitation in Idaho, which I agree with, that we shouldn't be in competition against private business. If it's an effort to clarify the nature of the Land Board's relationship to our assets, that says you're going to be the landlord and that's it, you're not going to be an operator and that's it, then I don't have a problem in clarifying that," he said. "Now there may be other members of the Land Board that might."

Asked whether the endowment's traditional investments, from timber lands to Boise office buildings, don't also in a sense compete with private business, Otter responded, "What would you have us do - sell the lands? These are the assets that we have. These are the assets that were granted at statehood."

Would Otter play hardball to get Legislature to go along with health exchange?

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter says it's his "obligation" to inform lawmakers of the consequences if they don't move to set up a state-run health insurance exchange - including the possibility that the state could lose $300 million in Medicaid funds. "This is a big deal," Otter said. "I think I'm obligated to explain to everybody what happens if we do nothing, and … the frustrations that we're going through in trying to do something in order to have Idaho's own design. I think that's my obligation."

Asked if he'd play hardball with a reluctant Legislature to get his way on this issue, Otter said, "That's in my State of the State," meaning he won't answer the question now. "We've got a few legislators in the room. I think I've tried to outline, at least for the leadership, exactly what the problems are if we don't do something," he said.

Otter says he’ll fight ed referendum

Gov. Butch Otter reaffirmed his support today for the "Students Come First" school reforms, which shift funds from salaries to technology boosts and make other changes, including removing many of teachers' collective bargaining rights. "I know they're going to be on the ballot this year, and I'm going to do all I can to make sure that they are still law after the November elections," he declared. The entire "Students Come First" package is up for a referendum vote in November of 2012 on whether or not to rescind it.

Otter on gas well regulation, youth challenge, health exchange, GARVEE

Gov. Butch Otter, responding to questions from reporters at today's AP Legislative Preview, was asked about proposed legislation to ban cities and counties from regulating gas well production. "We do see that as a state resource," he said. "But I don't think we want to ignore nor would I want to ignore the counties' input."

On other topics, he said he supports the National Guard Youth Challenge program proposed for north-central Idaho, but said, "I still want to keep it off the general fund. I think it has the merits. … I think it has a potential to build partnerships in the business community that will actually generate a successful program. I think it's a great program."

He reiterated his support for a state health insurance exchange, saying he believes it would help provide accessible and affordable insurance for the citizens of Idaho, regardless of national health care reform legislation.

Otter also said there's about $150 million left in Idaho's GARVEE bonding program for highway improvements. "That's something I think we're going to have to have the discussions for," he said. "No question some of those bridges have deteriorated a little faster than their designed life was. … I think it ought to be considered statewide."

Otter: Commitment to restoring education cuts stands

Asked about why he spoke, in his opening comments today, about tax relief but didn't mention restoring cuts to education - something he's long said would be top priority when state revenues improve - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said he'll address that in his State of the State address on Monday. "I have not relieved myself of my commitment," the governor said.

As for the "Students Come First" school reform plan, which calls for shifting funds from salaries to technology boosts in schools, Otter said that in his upcoming state budget, "We have fully funded Students Come First."

Otter: ‘I’m planning on running in 2014’

Asked why he chose to announce at a North Idaho fundraiser last month that he'll run for a third term as governor in 2014 - just one year into his current second term - Gov. Butch Otter said, "I didn't choose to make the announcement there. That was not part of my idea and part of my script. It was a fundraiser, and it's a fundraiser, by the way, that I started when I was in the United States Congress, of having a Christmas formal, a Christmas party, in northern Idaho. We do the same thing with a harvest ball in eastern Idaho. However, I responded to a question, and the question was are you planning on running in 2014. And my response was yes. So I was responding to a question." When reporters noted that he's been adept at dodging such questions on other occasions, Otter said, "I don't know that I've ever put myself on a schedule if I was uncertain about what I was planning on doing, and I'm planning on running in 2014 - and that was my response to that question."

Guv says Idaho could lose $300M in Medicaid funds if no insurance exchange

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter just told reporters that if Idaho fails to set up a state health insurance exchange, its Medicaid matching rate could switch from the current 70-30 federal-state match to 50-50. The cost of that, he said, would be "upwards of $300 million."

Otter: Any cig tax hike must go to smoking-related costs

Asked by reporters about proposals for a cigarette tax increase, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told reporters at the AP Legislative Preview this morning that he doesn't favor general tax increases, and would look only at those that are tied to a specific need. "We didn't see that nexus formulated in any piece of legislation that was written up that I saw last year," he said. "If we're trying to defray our medical cost on a particular item, or on a particular choice that people make, then I think that money needs to go to that area that we're trying to correct. If we're taxing tobacco for the health care costs that the general fund is otherwise picking up, then it should go to those people that are suffering as a result of their tobacco use and cessation efforts."

Otter: Economy not as ‘robust’ as hoped

Gov. Butch Otter is addressing the AP Legislative Preview now, and he started off with a warning that he doesn't view the state budget picture as being as "robust" as he'd hoped. "Less income has been realized in the sales tax area, which is the day-to-day monitor, if you will, of what the economy is doing," he said. Because of that, he said, talk of tax relief earlier in the year has "diminished somewhat, simply because if the money isn't there, the opportunity may not be."

If tax relief is considered, Otter said his preference would "If we had the money, to look at the possibility of lowering the individual income tax from the present 7.86 level down to the corporate level, at 7.6. Then take those two as years will let us in the future, take those two down together. … That is my preference."

Signs of impending legislative session…

Today's hearings by the Legislature's Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee are being streamed live online, courtesy of Idaho Public Television; you can watch live here. Also today, the 2 p.m. hearing at the Idaho Supreme Court on Twin Falls County's challenge to the new legislative redistricting plan also will be streamed live here.

As the state gears up for its annual legislative session, which starts on Monday, Gov. Butch Otter and other top officials are scheduled to talk with reporters this morning at the AP Legislative Preview; look here for the news as it comes out.

Idaho, national economy both expected to grow, but increases ‘gradual’

With Idaho's 2012 legislative session looming, lawmakers on the joint Economic Outlook & Revenue Assessment Committee convened this morning for a day and a half of hearings on the economy and likely tax revenues for the state and the nation. "The bottom line is that both economies are expected to grow over the next 18 months, but the increases will be gradual," state chief economist Derek Santos told the panel. Later this morning, the lawmakers will hear from representatives of the forest products, real estate, contractors, auto dealers and retail sectors of the economy, along with state labor, commerce and tech officials.

The panel's deliberations are aimed at a Jan. 12 decision on a tax revenue figure on which to peg the state's budget for next year.

Rep. Barbieri leaning against bringing new nullification bill this year

Idaho Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, who unsuccessfully pushed legislation last year to "nullify" the federal health care reform law, now says he's leaning toward holding off on another similar push this year. Barbieri said he's being encouraged to propose the legislation again to take advantage of the issue's "momentum," but said, "Since the Supreme Court has it, I'm reticent to jump back in again. … I think we need to just hold off, cool our heels, and wait to see." He said he's still discussing the issue with other backers of the idea.

By the way, here's Barbieri's reaction to the announcement of Hayden-area businessman Mark Fisher that he'll challenge Barbieri in this year's GOP primary: "It's too bad that the Republicans are divided. If he really wants to throw his time and money away to run, he should certainly be free to do that. I'm quite confident with the support I have up there that I should have no trouble winning with a substantial margin."

Catching up on the news…

After two weeks off, it's time to catch up on the news, and though the holidays aren't generally a time for lots of Idaho political news, there's been plenty. Among the highlights: Gov. Butch Otter is working on a state-backed investment fund for startups dubbed the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission, or iGem, and will pitch it to lawmakers when they convene next week. You can read AP reporter John Miller's full story here. Sixteen Idaho legislators have taken a pledge posed by an ex-DUI offender who urged them to vow that "no beverage alcohol will pass your lips during the 2012 legislative session," while several others declined, including Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who responded that as a Catholic, she wouldn't pledge to abstain from holy communion; read Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey's report here.

Miller revealed that a stash of cash at the Idaho state Veterans Division has grown to $31 million and state auditors say there are no restrictions on how the state spends that money; the figure is nearly equal to cuts Idaho made from its Medicaid program during last year's legislative session, and some lawmakers are concerned it wasn't brought up earlier. You can read Miller's full story here. And the prolific Miller, who was not on vacation, also reported that legislation is in the works to stop cities and counties from regulating local oil and natural gas development; you can read that article here.

After Idaho's first execution in 17 years, the state Department of Correction tallied up the costs of executing Paul Ezra Rhoades, and it came to $53,411; read a full report here.

Now it's 2012, and the Idaho Legislature will convene on Monday, with Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State and budget address scheduled for 1 p.m. MT/noon Pacific. The Legislature's Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee meets this Thursday and Friday; Otter and other officials address the AP legislative preview on Thursday; the Idaho Supreme Court will hear arguments on redistricting on Thursday afternoon; and the Legislature's Health Care Task Force meets Friday at 1:30.

In historic change, JFAC to take public testimony on K-12, H&W budgets

The powerful joint committee that writes all budget bills in the Idaho Legislature is also the only committee that’s never taken public testimony - but it will this year. With huge budget challenges facing the state, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduling two public hearings in January in the state capitol where any citizen can weigh in on two crucial areas of the state budget: School funding and health and welfare programs.

The move comes as JFAC also plans to hold unprecedented joint budget hearings with the House and Senate education and health and welfare committees in the coming session - two areas that make up the largest chunks of the state budget and where budgets are expected to be painfully tight. Among those hailing the changes is Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who late last year co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill to crimp JFAC’s ability to set policy or change laws as it writes budgets. “I think it’s a really, really important step forward to basically have better access and a better review,” Anderson said. “Hopefully it runs smoothly. Honestly, I don’t want to make their work any more difficult, but I think it does answer some questions that we raised. I’m very proud of ‘em for doing that.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC’s Senate vice-chair, said, “I applaud the co-chairs for their continued efforts to reach out for input, feedback and ideas at this very difficult economic time in our state’s history. We are all in this together.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.