BOISE – When the Idaho Legislature convenes Monday, it will face a push-pull between two competing goals for the session: a desire for a quick, “all business” session that wraps up well before the May primary election, versus a desire to roll out hot-button issues on which lawmakers want to stake out positions before they seek re-election.
“I think it’ll be the typical guns, gays and gestation,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, a Lewiston Democrat. Every seat in the Legislature is up for election this year, with the primary on May 17.
Republican Reps. Heather Scott, of Blanchard, and Ron Nate, of Rexburg, already have announced plans to push for allowing Idahoans to carry concealed guns without a permit, a move they call “constitutional carry.” Other lawmakers are targeting Planned Parenthood and a halt to refugee resettlement in Idaho.
“There’s some that want to go through that purification process every two years, but I don’t know how far those things will go,” said Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the highest-ranking senator. “I think something that doesn’t have a chance of getting through the Legislature, that is simply to make a statement and to maybe embarrass some of your fellow legislators, I think that that will be very discouraged.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, an Oakley Republican, is advocating the all-business approach. He said he wants to see the state budget set quickly – including the big school funding increases required to continue a five-year plan to raise teacher salaries and improve Idaho schools – and then see lawmakers take up recommendations from interim committees. That includes examining public defense reform, on which Idaho faces a federal lawsuit.
Despite much talk over the past year about big tax cuts, few are saying that will happen this year. “I’ve talked to a lot of legislators,” Gov. Butch Otter said. “I have not heard an overwhelming majority calling for tax relief this year.”
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I do think we need a comprehensive look at the way we tax, but I don’t think this year is going to be that year.”
Here are some of the top issues lawmakers will be focusing on:
There’s much agreement between Otter and lawmakers on the top priority: education funding. Idaho last year embarked on a five-year plan to increase teacher salaries and improve the state’s schools, guided by 20 recommendations from a task force Otter convened.
“Staying on track from where we started last year – that seems to be a foregone conclusion,” Bedke said. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, a Ketchum Democrat, agreed that following the task force’s recommendation on education funding is “our top priority.”
Despite three years of recommendations from Otter, Idaho lawmakers have refused to expand the state’s Medicaid program, even though the move would come largely at federal expense. That has left 78,000 Idahoans in a coverage gap: They make too much to qualify for Idaho’s limited Medicaid program, but too little to qualify for subsidized health coverage through the state insurance exchange, which is now enrolling close to 100,000 state residents.
Otter has a new proposal: a $30 million plan to provide basic care to those 78,000 residents through community health centers, where they’d pay fees for services on a sliding scale and get help with preventive care and managing chronic conditions. The plan would be state-funded, with the money coming from Idaho’s existing cigarette and tobacco taxes.
The proposal wouldn’t cover hospitalization, emergency room care or specialty care, and it wouldn’t do away with the state’s pricey catastrophic health and medical indigency program.
“It makes some sense,” said Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. “I’m certainly not in support of Medicaid expansion, but I’m in support of doing something that might help that 78,000.”
Rusche, a retired physician, said, “I still think it’s the worst of two alternatives, but clinically it’s better than nothing.”
Public defense reform
Idaho is facing a lawsuit over its system of providing public defenders for poor people accused of crimes, as required by the U.S. Constitution.
Though lawmakers have been working on proposals to fix the system for the past two years, little has happened, prompting the lawsuit.
There’s been finger-pointing between the state and counties; the state’s initial defense in the lawsuit has been that the problems are the counties’ fault, but the state has provided them no funding to address the matter.
“We have a lawsuit hanging over our heads, and I think that we take that seriously,” Bedke said.
Hill said, “If we can come up with a solution, I don’t think the funding will be very much of a problem.”
Otter said he plans to address the issue in his State of the State message on Monday.
Idaho has made little progress on the state Board of Education’s goal to get more students to go on to some form of higher education after high school. The state also made big cuts to higher ed during the economic downturn, largely made up through increases in tuition.
Several proposals are expected this year, including an effort by the Otter administration to give a big boost to professional-technical education.
The Legislature’s No. 1 job is setting the annual state budget, and tax revenues have been coming in strong. But last year’s Legislature already committed any surplus generated this year or next year to be split 50-50 between road work and state savings funds.
Other pricey needs also will come up: Costs for a major aquifer recharge project, now funded by the cigarette tax, are due to shift to the general fund. State employee wages are lagging far behind market rates, despite a small boost last year. Lawmakers must pay the bills from a costly fire season and anticipate another one this year. And legislative interim committees will have proposals, with price tags attached, for everything from public defense reform to improving state purchasing practices to setting up a new school broadband service program to replace the defunct Idaho Education Network.
Sen. Shawn Keough, a Republican from Sandpoint who takes over this year as co-chairwoman of the powerful joint budget committee, noted that Idaho’s past fiscal conservatism – putting money into reserves – “saved our bacon in the downturn. If we had not had those reserves, we would’ve cut education a lot harder and a lot sooner.”
There’s lots more. Despite the failure of a legislative working group to come up with major tax-cut plans, some lawmakers still will push for cuts to income and business personal property taxes, and some want to remove Idaho’s sales tax from groceries, a long-sought but expensive proposal.
Idaho still hasn’t enacted discrimination protections for gays, and there’s some talk of compromise between gay-rights advocates and religious-freedom advocates.
Rusche is working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on plans for a state Office of Inspector General, to address allegations of waste, fraud and ethical violations in the state.
And even as the session is in progress, prospective challengers will begin filing in March to run against the sitting lawmakers.
Keough said, “It is an election year, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the issues and the importance of deliberation.”
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