March 7, 2021

Happenings at the Statehouse

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

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.

1/30/2020 – Article: “Bipartisan Proposal Would Give Some Former Idaho Inmates A ‘Clean Slate'”

  • Article: “Bipartisan Proposal Would Give Some Former Idaho Inmates A ‘Clean Slate'”
  • “We hope [this proposal] will have a transformative effect on these peoples’ lives,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise). Most other states have some sort of law that allows adults to seal their criminal records by following certain criteria. Rubel said that often, the time an individual serves in prison is the least of their worries. She said some people struggle to get jobs, scholarships, housing, or certain degrees because of their criminal background. Rubel said these are some of the “collateral consequences” that follow these folks around for the rest of their lives.

1/22/2020 – Article: “Bipartisan bill emerges to clean Idaho criminal slate”

  • Article: “Bipartisan bill emerges to clean Idaho criminal slate”
  • “Many of these folks deserve a real second chance, but we continue to hand out these collateral life sentences. We are proposing legislation referred to as a “Clean Slate” bill that would allow those who have committed non-violent, non-sexual offenses, who have completed their sentence (including probation and parole) and who have gone at least three years without reoffending to petition a court to have their public record sealed. If they can make their case to the judge that they are no longer a threat to society, they can earn a real shot at getting their lives back on track.”

1/22/2020 – Article: “Idaho legislators introduce ‘Clean Slate’ bill”

“Idahoans Deserve a Second Chance” – by Rep. Ilana Rubel

Our criminal justice system is intended to ensure there is an appropriate penalty associated with crime. We refer to this as paying one’s debt to society. However, under some of Idaho’s current laws, the payment never seems to stop. Our courts assign formal penalties, like prison time, probation and fines, but these can often be the least of a former offender’s difficulties. The bigger problem is the long list of “collateral consequences” that are not part of the sentence but follow individuals far beyond the end of any time served. It is not hard to link these collateral consequences with the unacceptably high rate of people returning to the correctional system.

Often those affected are friends or family members who committed relatively minor offenses, learned their lesson, and are ready to move on with their lives. Unfortunately, these records will follow them forever, and can severely affect their ability to find housing or a job. Inquiries into their criminal record will follow them to every job and housing application, and can be the first and last question that companies ask before turning them away. The resulting higher rates of unemployment, underemployment and homelessness for these individuals actually increases the risk that they will reoffend. With no money and no roof over their head, it’s no surprise that Idaho’s recidivism rate is 35% for felony offenders.

In Idaho, if you were 18 or over at the time of the offense, everything on your record, even misdemeanors, stays in public view to your dying day. The majority of states don’t operate this way. In fact, 41 states and the District of Columbia offer some mechanism for record-sealing for adults, and it has proven successful. The most comprehensive study we could find showed that for those with relatively minor offenses who had gone several years without reoffending and then had their record sealed, they were 22% more likely to be employed, and if previously employed their wages were 25% higher after sealing. Most importantly, this was accomplished with no threat to public safety; in fact there was substantial benefit. The recidivism rates for these former offenders were extremely low, and arrest rates for those with sealed records were actually 29% lower than those of the public at large. Remember Idaho’s 35% felony recidivism rate? This study showed a 1% felony recidivism rate for those who had successfully had their records sealed. It turns out that, having been given a chance to get their lives back on track, they did not want to blow their opportunity by reoffending.

Only infractions, misdemeanors, and nonviolent felonies that fall below a defined threshold would be sealed. This means those with a need to know, like law enforcement and judges, would still have access to ensure repeat offenders are accounted for. The point is to better define when justice has been served and allow individuals to move on with their lives.

We think it’s time for Idaho to seriously start addressing reform of our criminal justice system. Many of these folks deserve a real second chance, but we continue to hand out these collateral life sentences. We are proposing legislation referred to as a “Clean Slate” bill that would allow those who have committed non-violent, non-sexual offenses, who have completed their sentence (including probation and parole) and who have gone at least three years without reoffending to petition a court to have their public record sealed. If they can make their case to the judge that they are no longer a threat to society, they can earn a real shot at getting their lives back on track.

With the cost of our correctional system being second only to education in our state, it is time to consider different approaches to enable those who have paid their price to society move forward. We need those with criminal records to succeed, not reoffend. Taxpayers are footing the bill every time a person is reincarcerated in our already overburdened prisons, and it’s better for all of us when more of our citizens are employed. Instead of setting former offenders up for a life of frustration and desperation that may push them to commit another crime, let’s work to remove barriers to employment and empower them to learn from their mistakes.

3/1/2019 – Rep. Rubel’s bill for mandatory sentencing reform advances (House Bill 99)

HB99, my bill which would reform mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses by giving judges more discretion in sentencing, passed from committee and will be voted on by the full House on Monday. This one has strong bipartisan support – we’ll see what happens on the Floor.

2/20/2019 – Reforming mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders (House Bill 99)

As many of you know, I have been trying for years to reform mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. The goal is to give judges the power to craft appropriate sentences while freeing up dollars for roads, education and drug treatment – huge dollars are currently spent jailing nonviolent addicts, with little if any deterrent effect. Since mandatory minimums were passed in 1992, our drug rate per capita has gone up 710%. Check out this chart:

February 20 Criminal Justice Chart

Our current plan does not seem to be working, and we heard not long ago that Corrections wants $500 million to build more prison space to house these folks. I am sponsoring HB99, a bipartisan bill that would allow judges to deviate from mandatory minimums where required to avoid manifest injustice. It will be heard at 1:30 pm on Monday February 25 in the House Judiciary Committee – public testimony is welcome.

2/8/2019 – Video: Rep. Rubel discusses reforming mandatory minimum sentencing with “Idaho Reports”

2/5/2019 – Article: “Bill introduced to relax mandatory minimums for drugs”

  • Article Link: “Bill introduced to relax mandatory minimums for drugs”
  • Excerpt: A bill to relax mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking was introduced into the Idaho Legislature on Tuesday. The House Judiciary committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, which is being sponsored by Reps. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, and Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. It would leave the current sentencing guidelines in place but strike the word “mandatory,” letting judges impose shorter sentences if they feel following the guidelines would result in an injustice or isn’t necessary for public safety.