BOISE – Three big issues – education, health care and prisons – loom over Idaho lawmakers as they convene their legislative session Monday.
But at the same time, every seat in the Idaho Legislature is on the ballot this year, with the primary election coming up in May. And so is every statewide office – including that of Gov. Butch Otter, who faces a primary challenge from a member of the Senate GOP leadership.
“I’m hopeful that the political season is not a distraction to the work that it’s clear Idahoans want us to do,” said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.
But there will be lots of pressure on lawmakers to position themselves for the upcoming election season. Though Republicans dominate the Idaho Legislature and hold every statewide elected post, a schism within the party has brought clashes like the one facing Otter, who is being challenged by Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher, one of the party’s most conservative leaders.
“It could be a huge factor,” said Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University professor emeritus and longtime Idaho political observer. “We’ll see a lot of litmus tests camouflaged as bills, to test how conservative legislators are, particularly Republicans.”
Education draws widespread agreement
One issue on which there’s widespread agreement is that Idaho must improve its education system, after years of budget cuts and after voters last year repealed a package of controversial reform laws.
Now, all sides have agreed on a $350 million slate of improvements outlined by a task force that Otter appointed. Idaho lacks the money to do it all at once, but Otter is calling for phasing in the improvements over the next five years, from restoring budget cuts to boosting teacher pay to reforming student advancement and teacher licensure.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he’s been carrying the list of the task force’s 20 recommendations with him everywhere he goes. “This will be a driver this session,” he said.
Otter called the task force’s plan “a blueprint for us going forward” and said, “Education is going to be our No. 1 priority.”
The question then becomes how much lawmakers are willing to set aside toward the plan as they set the budget for next year, with competing demands from every other corner of state government and from tax cut proponents who’ve often been courted by Otter and GOP lawmakers in the past. Otter also wants to put substantially more money into the state’s savings accounts.
Health care fight could return
Last year’s biggest legislative fight was over health care, with Otter persuading lawmakers to launch a state-based health insurance exchange, over furious protests from members of his own party who thought that was tantamount to endorsing the national health reform law they call Obamacare.
This year, opponents will press to repeal or gut the exchange, but Otter is holding firm to his stand that the state’s better off running its own exchange than relying on the federal government to run one for it.
Idaho still hasn’t decided, however, whether to expand its Medicaid program to cover more low-income adults. Federal court decisions made that piece of health care reform optional for states, though it would be largely federally funded. Expansion could ease pressure on the state’s pricey catastrophic health care program, which now pays for catastrophic health care expenses for the poor entirely with state and local property tax funds.
Otter said Friday he wants changes in Idaho’s Medicaid program to promote more personal responsibility before Idaho expands coverage. “I want to see better health care outcomes,” he said.
Bombshell announcement on prisons
Prison issues also are taking center stage for Idaho lawmakers this year, as Otter, long an advocate of privatization, on Friday made the bombshell announcement that he’s ordering the state to take over the trouble-plagued Idaho Correctional Center, a privately operated state prison south of Boise that’s been at the center of lawsuits and scandals.
A joint project with the Council of State Governments and the Pew Trusts has determined that Idaho keeps nonviolent offenders behind bars twice as long as the rest of the nation. The project also found Idaho prisons suffer from a “revolving door of recidivism,” driven in part by a system that sends probationers and parolees back to prison – filling 41 percent of the state’s prison beds – without tailoring the penalties to their violations, and then often delays parole releases.
If the state were to enact a package of reforms, researchers estimated it could save $255 million on prison costs in five years, while investing just $33 million into better supervision and tracking programs. Otter has endorsed the reforms.
“I hope everybody supports those,” the governor said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Lawmakers also are likely to debate hot-button issues from abortion to same-sex marriage in this election year, and will consider everything from raises for state employees to tax cuts for businesses.
But they’ll also be focused on wrapping up their business quickly – so they can get back to their districts to campaign, which their opponents already will be doing as they work into the spring in Boise.