May 16, 2021

Happenings at the Statehouse – February 17, 2021

Power plays

Much of the first half of session has centered around shifting power from the Governor to the Legislature, from health districts to the Legislature, from local government to the Legislature, and from voters to the Legislature. Noticing a pattern here?

Local control – Last week, the House passed H90, which would prohibit any county, city or town from changing the names of streets, parks or schools in their communities without the permission of the Legislature. I obtained an opinion from the Attorney General finding that the bill violates our State Constitution which does not allow the Legislature to control local issues such as naming local landmarks. In light of this there’s a good chance the Senate will hold the bill – we shall see.

Executive powers – Yesterday the House passed H135, which would significantly restrict the Governor’s ability to enact emergency policy. Under this bill, an emergency declaration would require legislative authority to last longer than 60 days, and the Governor could not take any action that would restrict employment. This caused me concern, as we have historically had numerous emergencies last longer than 60 days, and calling the Legislature back in all the time is costly. Moreover, many sensible precautions a governor might take during an emergency could have the result of restricting employment, and it is hard to predict what consequences this would have in terms of preventing needed action in future emergencies.

Ballot initiative rights – Ever since the voters of Idaho took it upon themselves to pass Medicaid expansion in 2018, we have seen a steady stream of legislative efforts to rein in voters’ ability to bring ballot initiatives. The latest is S1110 making its way through the Senate, which would require signatures from 6% of all registered voters in all 35 legislative districts to get a proposal on the ballot. This would likely effectively end citizen ballot initiatives in Idaho, as it is barely possible to get on the ballot with the current threshold of 18 districts and we have only seen one successful effort in the past 8 years. I worked hard to collect signatures for Medicaid expansion in 2018 – here’s me helping deliver boxes of signatures to the Secretary of State. I can attest that it took a Herculean effort by thousands of volunteers just to meet the 18-district standard; we wouldn’t have made it if we had to cover all 35 districts.

Tax bills

Yesterday H199 was introduced by House GOP leadership, which would implement a sales tax cut from 6% to 5.3% and a top margin income tax cut from 6.9% to 6.5%. By 2023 this proposal would reduce state revenue by $435 million per year. It would also eliminate the grocery tax credit, so some folks might see their tax on food increase while others would decrease depending on how much food they purchase.

This morning the Democrats introduced an alternative plan that would use some projected surplus revenue to finally fund full-day kindergarten, a long-standing recommendation most recently endorsed by the Governor’s 2019 K-12 Task Force. It would also allocate funds to remediation programs designed to address the substantial learning loss that children have experienced during COVID. Statewide reading scores have dropped 8-9% and alarming results are expected once other testing resumes, requiring substantial investment in after-school and summer programs to catch kids up. The proposal also includes residential property tax reductions, the use of impact fees on new development to pay for new school construction, and an increase to child tax credits.

Status of other bills I’m working on

– HCR6 seeks insurance coverage for medically necessary prescription formula for infants and children with serious conditions like Crohn’s disease and eosinophilic esophagitis. This has passed from Committee and will soon be heard on the House floor.

– S1069 requires the clerk to notify you if your absentee ballot is rejected for a signature mismatch or other technicality so that you still have a chance to vote. It has passed Committee and will soon get a Senate floor vote.

– H108 is the Sgt. Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act – it was introduced but still waiting to see if it will get a full hearing and vote.

– H189, the “Clean Slate Act,” would allow those with minor non-violent, non-sexual offenses who have been offense-free for at least 5 years to petition to seal their public record. This was introduced Monday and is awaiting a full hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

Happenings at the Statehouse – February 4, 2021

Cannabis legislation

Yesterday the Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment, SJR101, that would create a permanent ban on all cannabis, including for medical purposes. Unless we were to act fast to legalize it, this amendment would also put a permanent ban on industrial hemp and CBD oil in our Constitution. SJR101 now heads to the House.

On the other side of the scale, I have been working with Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, a 22-year Air Force veteran with terminal cancer, on a bipartisan bill that would allow regulated medical cannabis by prescription only. This is something that 36 states already provide – most have not progressed to recreational cannabis. Here’s my op ed providing further detail. If passed, this bill (modeled on Utah’s legislation) would give Idaho the strictest medical cannabis law in the nation, but would permit its use for cancer patients and others who genuinely need it.

Property tax bills

We have a slate of bills targeted to lowering your property taxes, including restoring the indexed homeowner exemption, increasing the circuit breaker to help seniors and veterans, using the sequestered internet sales tax for local government and education needs to relieve property taxes, and allowing impact fees to pay for school construction to alleviate school bonding. We’re working on convincing the Tax Committee chair to allow hearings on these.

Other bills I’m working on

– A resolution seeking insurance coverage for medically necessary prescription formula for infants and children with serious conditions like Crohn’s disease and eosinophilic esophagitis. This formula can cost families $2,000 per month, creating terrible financial strain. Many states require that such formula be covered, and I am asking our Department of Insurance to consider a similar requirement here.

– A notification requirement in case your absentee ballot is rejected on a technicality. When you send in your absentee ballot, the clerk may decide your signature doesn’t match the one on file and discard your ballot. In Ada County, the clerk has opted to notify people so they can fix it or vote in person, but there is no uniform requirement, and some counties don’t tell voters when their vote is discarded. This legislation would require statewide notification to voters if their ballot is discarded.

– A clean slate bill allowing those with minor non-violent, non-sexual offenses who have been offense-free for at least 5 years to petition to seal their public record. This is something that 41 other states allow, and has improved public safety. It turns out that people are much less likely to reoffend if they have a path to moving past their mistakes.

– Creating an option for kids in foster care to remain in the system until age 21. This has proven to be very successful in other states in leading to much better outcomes for foster children. Rep. Lauren Necochea is taking the lead and I’m assisting.

“A Bipartisan Plan to Help an Idaho Hero” – by Reps. Ilana Rubel and Mike Kingsley

Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, a proud Idahoan, served 22 years in the Air Force with distinction. He deployed to three continents, and among the many honors he received are several Meritorious Service Medals and the National Veterans of Foreign Wars “Beyond the Call” Award. Unfortunately, his service to our country left him with more than just a shadowbox full of medals. It left him with Stage 4 cancer. His duties in the Air Force included handling radioactive materials, and now, at age 50, his doctors have declared him terminal.

After 20 rounds of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries that removed parts of his intestines and other organs, Jeremy has massive internal scarring and is in constant pain. Every day, he must take an array of opioids that cause nightmares, carry a high risk of addiction and overdose, and threaten deadly intestinal obstructions. His wife carries NARCAN everywhere in case he has a life-threatening reaction from these potentially fatal opioids.

While Jeremy dedicated his life to serving his country, Idaho is not currently doing all it should to repay him. What Jeremy really needs is not multiple prescription bottles full of opioids that cause devastating side effects, but medical cannabis. Numerous doctors, including his oncologist, have recommended he take medical cannabis, but he can’t because Idaho is one of only 14 states that bans it. He actually tried it in other states, and it worked very well, relieving his pain without the nightmares and intestinal problems caused by opioids. Almost every jurisdiction that borders Idaho permits medical cannabis, and friends have suggested he just smuggle it in, but Jeremy is not a law-breaker.

Instead, he spent the last two years drafting legislation to carefully regulate and control medical cannabis, containing extensive safeguards so Idaho would not turn into Oregon. Jeremy’s bill is modelled after Utah’s legislation, but is more strict. The cannabis must be in medical dosage form (blister-sealed packaging) in very limited doses, no growing or production allowed, cannabis card needed for possession and only medical providers who can prescribe opioids could prescribe cannabis. Also, if a person misuses their card to obtain cannabis for someone else, it would be revoked immediately upon conviction.

We are state representatives from different parties, but we are co-sponsoring the “Sergeant Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act” because pain is not partisan. We agree that Idahoans should not become criminals for seeking safer, better treatment. Thirty six states have legalized medical cannabis, and 22 of these have not progressed to recreational marijuana. Many of these are red states, like Ohio, Utah, Oklahoma and Missouri, that have found a way to get sick people the treatment they need without unsavory pot dispensaries popping up or kids getting access to marijuana.

We can get patients help for pain without stepping on a slippery slope, and this is what most Idahoans want. A 2019 poll from FM3 Research showed 72% of Idahoans were in favor of legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, and that number has likely climbed higher since the poll was taken. There is strong evidence cannabis is a much safer treatment than opioids and would better serve those suffering from a variety of illnesses, like cancer, epilepsy, ALS, and multiple sclerosis.

We have seen efforts this session to put a permanent ban on cannabis for any purpose in Idaho’s Constitution. Instead, for the sake of Jeremy and the thousands of Idahoans in his situation, we believe it is time to provide a safe, regulated way to access the treatment they need. We hope you will join us in helping an Idaho hero and passing the Sergeant Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act.

“GOP Legislators deliver gut punch to Idaho businesses” – by Rep. Ilana Rubel

In the closing weeks of the 2020 legislative session, it was apparent we were heading into a crisis of unprecedented proportions that would impact not only Idahoans’ health but also our economy, jobs, education system and every other facet of our lives. Businesses had been ordered to close, group gatherings were banned and schools were forming plans not to return from Spring break. However, the Legislature was still operating, and could have taken helpful action if it so chose.

So what did our GOP-dominated Legislature do during these critical weeks? Did it beef up our unemployment insurance system so the expected flood of claims could be processed quickly and efficiently? Afraid not. Laid-off workers were left with a totally inadequate system that left their claims unpaid and their calls unanswered for months.

Did our Legislature help Idaho schools prepare to shift to a remote learning model? Nope – not a peep about training teachers, improving student broadband access, or providing resources that would have enabled a successful transition to online education. What about property tax relief, for which citizens had been begging for months? Another big no – the party in charge blocked six different property tax relief bills sponsored by Democrats.

Instead of focusing on providing help to Idaho’s people and businesses, the GOP supermajority spent these precious weeks ramming through bills on every divisive social issue they could think of. Most notably, over the strenuous objection of every Democratic legislator, they passed the nation’s most extreme anti-transgender legislation. In doing so, the GOP supermajority disregarded warnings from current and former Attorneys-General that the bills were unconstitutional and would cost the state a fortune to defend, and they ignored forceful opposition by many of the state’s largest employers (including Micron, the INL, Clif Bar and Chobani) who warned of serious harm to business interests.

Now, our reeling businesses and workers must pay the price for these legislators’ reckless actions at a time when we can least afford it. California law does not allow taxpayer dollars to pay for travel to states that discriminate against LGBTQ Americans, and Idaho just landed on this banned travel list because of our new anti-transgender laws. This means that California’s public universities will not be able to send athletes, students, or even debate teams to Idaho. Conference and convention planners will be reluctant to choose Idaho for events because California state employees won’t be able to come. Further, this announcement comes on the heels of news that the NCAA is considering blacklisting Idaho because of these laws, potentially costing $15 million in lost business.

Our hospitality industry was already hit brutally by the coronavirus pandemic. The very last thing our hotels and restaurants need right now is this devastating and totally unnecessary blow, dealt by Idaho’s own legislature. As we are now looking at cutting $100 million from our education budget and deep cuts to other critical services, it is beyond infuriating to watch tens of millions of dollars set on fire by a GOP-dominated legislature that seems only to be interested in escalating culture wars.

Both of Idaho’s new discriminatory anti-transgender laws are currently being challenged in federal court. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the judicial branch will strike them down, saving us from more catastrophic impact to our hospitality industry. But we shouldn’t have to count on such intervention to save us from our own elected leaders. We should have a legislature that focuses on helping, or at least that does no harm.

The myth of the GOP as the “pro-business, fiscally conservative” party has been shattered once again. Too often the majority party is ready and willing to inflict crippling economic losses on Idaho workers and businesses in service of a divisive social agenda. For decades, GOP legislators have forced taxpayers to pay millions to defend right-wing legislation that was clearly unconstitutional but passed anyway to indulge various ideological fixations. We can’t afford this behavior any longer. We are in a recession and that money needs to go to schools, roads and necessary government services. Idaho voters – you have the power. Insist that your legislators stop wantonly hurting our economy and stay focused on protecting our freedoms and improving education, economy and quality of life.

California Announces Publicly Funded Travel No Longer Allowed to Idaho

Idaho – On Monday, California announced that it is prohibiting taxpayer-funded travel to Idaho on account of Idaho’s recently passed anti-transgender laws.

House Minority Leader Representative Ilana Rubel/(D-Boise) expressed her extreme disappointment in the Idaho legislature.

“It was extremely foreseeable that Idaho’s new anti-transgender laws would create a cascading financial disaster for our state.” Rep. Rubel said. “The legislature was not only warned by current and former attorneys-general that these laws were unconstitutional and would cost a fortune to defend, but was further warned by a group of Idaho’s leading employers that passing such openly discriminatory legislation would cause severe damage to the business community. I am proud that every Democratic legislator heeded those warnings and voted against the bills.

Now, our reeling businesses and workers must pay the price for GOP legislators’ reckless actions at a time when we can least afford it. California law does not allow taxpayer dollars to pay for travel to states that discriminate against LGBTQ Americans, and Idaho just landed on this banned travel list because of our new anti-transgender laws. This means that California’s public universities will likely not be able to send athletes, students, or even debate teams to Idaho. Conference and convention planners will be reluctant to choose Idaho for events because California state employees won’t be able to come. Further, this announcement comes on the heels of news that the NCAA is considering blacklisting Idaho because of these laws, potentially costing $15 million in lost business.

Our hospitality industry was already hit brutally by the coronavirus pandemic. The very last thing our hotels and restaurants need right now is this devastating and totally unnecessary blow, dealt by Idaho’s own legislature. As the Governor is now looking at cutting $100 million from our education budget and deep cuts to other critical services, it is beyond infuriating to watch tens of millions of dollars set on fire by a GOP-dominated legislature that seems only to be interested in escalating culture wars.

This crisis was created out of whole cloth by the legislature. There had never been a single reported problem arising from any transgender athlete in the state of Idaho, nor from any transgender person seeking to revise the gender marker on their birth certificate. Now, we face a legal, human rights and financial crisis manufactured by the GOP supermajority. We can’t afford this behavior any longer. Idaho is in a recession and our precious tax dollars must be used for schools, roads and necessary government services.”