October 17, 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.

Democrats Propose Slate of Solutions for Idaho

On Monday, the Idaho Democratic leadership held a press conference to propose a slate of Democratic solutions that would address the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and set the state on the path to a better future. Senate Democratic Leader Michelle Stennett/(D-Ketchum) and House Democratic Leader Representative Ilana Rubel/(D-Boise) outlined actions that should be taken at the state level to improve the lives of everyday Idahoans.

The press conference was held during the lunch break of the State Affairs Working Group. The Democratic leaders delivered their thoughts on the importance of making tangible changes that will positively impact Idaho communities.

“The pandemic has caused financial, educational, health, and mental distress on Idaho families,” said Senator Stennett. “No one was prepared for this, but it is up to all of us to do our piece towards recovery. The Legislature has a duty to find solutions to protect public health and safety and provide economic security. There is no excuse for inaction or political posturing.”

“The legislature’s foremost responsibility is to keep Idahoans safe.” Rep. Rubel stated. “The Democratic caucus has put together a slate of solutions that should be implemented as soon as possible. The coronavirus pandemic has had dire financial, health, and educational impacts on Idaho families, and there are numerous steps that can and should be taken to meaningfully alleviate the risk and suffering facing our people. We hope our Republican colleagues will join us in pressing forward with these plans.”

The Democratic caucus compiled a list of solutions that can be accomplished through state action, as follows:

1) Education. A $100 million cut to our education budget, as has been imposed by the Governor, is not acceptable.

Kids are being sent back to schools in a month. The state is asking already underpaid teachers to take on unprecedented new risks and responsibilities. Teachers and other school personnel are expected to enter into substantial personal danger, to ensure social distancing for students, to enforce masking in many places and to ensure other precautions are maintained. Teachers are being forced to innovate and learn new methods of instruction for remote learners, and in return for all of this they are getting a pay cut, and losing salary increases they fought for years to obtain.

Idaho already faced a teacher recruitment and retention crisis heading into this pandemic, and this cut is a recipe for disaster. The Democratic caucus believes the following is necessary:

  • Ensure that all safety measures, such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, plexiglass as appropriate, and increased cleaning costs are in place and funded;
  • Ensure that distance learning options are in place and are funded for families that do not feel safe sending children to schools for in-person instruction. This includes ensuring adequate broadband access and device access for students who need them.
  • Restore teacher salaries and pay all leadership premiums to which teachers are entitled. We cannot expect teachers to do more work in more dangerous conditions for less pay. In fact, hazard pay should be strongly considered for teachers and other school personnel. State revenues are actually above projections, we have hundreds of millions of dollars in the rainy day fund, and there are untapped internet sales tax revenues. This is the rainy day we’ve been saving for; a cut of this magnitude to school funding and teacher pay at a time like this is unnecessary and unacceptable.

2) Tax policy.

  • The Idaho Legislature has never allowed internet sales tax to be used to fund education as other sales tax is. Even before this pandemic, this was creating a problem as consumer purchases have for years been shifting from brick and mortar stores (where the tax is used to fund schools) to online purchases (where the sales tax is withheld from the state General Fund). This shift accelerated dramatically during COVID, and we can no longer afford to have this growing pool of revenue held back from our schools – certainly not when our government is cutting $100M from the education budget. Should there be a special session, the Democratic caucus asks that legislation be passed to allow usage of internet sales tax revenue to reverse the draconian cuts to education.
  • We further call for an update to the circuit breaker to assist seniors and our most vulnerable citizens in paying property taxes. This was introduced in the Senate last session and had strong support with the public at large, but was blocked by the House Committee Chair. Seniors have seen their retirement funds drop significantly in value and need help in dealing with property taxes.

3) Voting access.

  • Whether or not in-person voting is available this fall, Idahoans must have easy, safe access to voting by mail. We appreciate that the Secretary of State enabled ballot requests to be made online for the May primary election, a step that led to record turnout. The Democratic caucus believes that access should be made permanent.
  • The Secretary of State has broad emergency powers to alter voting procedures that can either make voting more accessible or suppress voter participation. As these powers are used more and expanded during the pandemic, we question whether it is appropriate for an officer who is beholden to one political party to make material changes to electoral machinery that could significantly favor one party. Accordingly, we propose a Constitutional amendment to make the Secretary of State’s office non-partisan.

4) Health & Welfare.

  • We were surprised and disappointed that no Health and Welfare working group was established during this health crisis. Addressing health concerns should be the principal goal of the state government during the coronavirus pandemic. We have two priorities in the health and welfare area:
    • Testing – Idahoans need more available testing with faster results. Idaho has been identified by the White House as one of America’s hot spots and has skyrocketing infection numbers. Yet Idahoans must wait days both to get tested and to get their results. The only way we are going to beat this virus and get our economy back up to speed is by knowing who is infected and preventing further spread. The state should be making much more meaningful investments in testing and contact tracing.
    • Child care – Child care options in Idaho were already extremely limited, and coronavirus has closed many facilities. If action is not taken soon, the majority of Idaho childcare providers will be out of business and parents will not have safe, reliable childcare options. This would have grave consequences for the health and safety of our children and for the future of our business community as a whole. Idahoans need safe, reliable childcare in order to return to work. The CARES Act has earmarked funds for childcare in Idaho, but the bulk of it has not been released by the Department of Health and Welfare. We call for the release of CARES money to childcare facilities so they can remain safe and operational.

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.”

4/5/2019 – Article: “House sticks with Medicaid work requirements”

  • Article Link: “House sticks with Medicaid work requirements”
  • Excerpt: “I am beyond disappointed to be in the situation we’re in today,” Rubel said. “I feel like, after an entire session of bouncing around, we’ve really landed in the worst possible world. There was a lot of talk about how this was going to be a compassionate solution, that it was going to offer people training and counseling and help get them into the workforce. … But that’s all gone. That all got yanked … The only thing in this bill is the part where we’re going to spend millions of dollars to hire an enforcement squad to chase down the poorest people in the state and kick them off Medicaid. We’ve pulled out the only part that would actually help them get jobs.”

4/5/2019 – Article: “Idaho House alters bill to remove people from Medicaid”

  • Article Link: “Idaho House alters bill to remove people from Medicaid”
  • Excerpt: “The only thing that’s in this bill is the part where we hire an enforcement squad to chase down the poorest people in the state and kick them off Medicaid,” said Democratic Rep. Ilana Rubel in arguing against the bill.

4/5/2019 – Article/Audio: “Medicaid, Citizen Initiatives, And Two-Headed Camels”

  • Article Link: “Medicaid, Citizen Initiatives, And Two-Headed Camels”
  • About: It’s been a wild session and an even wilder week. Medicaid expansion sideboards and citizen initiative bills were the headliners. Lawmakers talked about everything from two-headed camels to moon shots to people losing their faith in lawmakers. “You know they talk about a camel being something that was made by a committee. We have a mangy, two-headed, rabid camel here,” says Democratic Representative Ilana Rubel.

3/29/2019 – Article: “Idaho House Signs Off On Two Initiative Restriction Bills”

  • Article Link: “Idaho House Signs Off On Two Initiative Restriction Bills”
  • Excerpt: Ultimately, opponents say the issue will be struck down by a judge on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional. An opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s office says constricting the time-frame for signature gathering “could be problematic,” though that would be slightly increased under the new bill. “If you pass this, it’s going to go to court for sure and I slept like a baby last night because I’m very comfortable that this will not find its way into law,” says Rep. Ilana Rubel (D-Boise), who’s also an intellectual property lawyer.

3/25/2019 – Despite public and professional opposition, House Bill 277 advances

HB277 passed the House Thursday 45-25 after many hours of contentious debate and overwhelming public opposition in committee. Here’s my floor debate if you’re interested – it lays out the main arguments against the bill.

HB277 (which is opposed by the Idaho Hospital Ass’n, the Idaho Medical Ass’n, the Idaho Education Ass’n, and virtually every medical organization in the state) would add work requirements and other significant restrictions to Proposition 2. It would require 22 new enforcement personnel, with the net effect that it is projected to cost at least $3-4 million more than “clean” Medicaid expansion as passed by the voters, and would re-create an uninsured gap of ~22,000 people.

The bill was rushed through on such an accelerated basis that we still do not have a full fiscal analysis addressing what it will cost the state and counties. There is another “Medicaid sideboards” bill that it on its way to the Senate floor that is much less restrictive – stay tuned to see which version emerges.