October 17, 2021

Happenings at the Statehouse – March 17, 2021

Let’s hope we’re heading into the final stretch. We now have three House members who tested positive for COVID just this week, so it would seem wise to wrap things up before it gets worse.

Foster care

I wanted to start with some good news. Our bill to allow kids to remain in foster care until 21, HB336, is moving forward! This is expected to lead to much better outcomes for many kids in foster care.

Taxes

Despite the steady drumbeat from the public demanding lower property taxes, we continue to be stonewalled on all our bills targeted at property tax reduction. Instead, the House will imminently be voting on HB322, an income tax bill with extremely disproportionate benefits to those at the top end of the income spectrum. This bill would cost between $386 million and $389.4 million in revenue in its first year and between $160 million to $169.4 million per year thereafter. Here is an impact analysis from the nonpartisan Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy:

As you can see, those in the top 1% of income would get nearly $9,000, while those in the bottom 20% of income would get ~$78. It’s been a very tough year for many people, and if we’re going to be taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the General Fund that funds education, I would like to see it going to those who really need it.

Education

Good news – we are going to take another run at trying to approve the $6 million federal grant for early childhood education programs that was rejected by the House a few weeks ago. We’re waiting on a bill number, but it’s coming soon.

In less good news, the hearing for our bill to fund full-day kindergarten (HB331) was canceled and now is in limbo as both the committee Chair and Vice-chair are out with COVID. We are still trying everything we can to save it.

In even less good news, last week, in a stunning move that no one saw coming, the House State Affairs Committee killed the lottery!

A small statutory adjustment was needed to accommodate Powerball’s expansion into the UK and Australia. Arguing that the Powerball might bring money to Australia, and Australia has gun control laws, they shot it down on mostly party lines, a move that if not reversed will cause Idaho schools to lose $14M in funding. I am hoping this bill gets reintroduced before session ends.

The House passed HB122 last week, requiring all schools to allow firearms on the premises and in classrooms regardless of district policy. It is yet to be seen if it will be heard in the Senate.

We are also awaiting the fate of our higher education budgets, which have already been cut by millions and still face an uncertain future. Many House members are threatening to defund our universities completely, objecting to the inclusion of social justice issues in certain class curricula.

Voting rights

S1110, the bill that would effectively end citizen ballot initiatives by doubling the difficulty of meeting signature requirements, is awaiting a House floor vote. I fear the only way to stop this one is likely through the Governor’s veto – here’s a link if you want to shoot him an email.

HJR4 is also up for a vote on the House floor. This Constitutional amendment prohibits any drug from being moved off Schedule 1 or 2 without a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. The immediate objective appears to be to prevent the pending (and any future) ballot initiative effort to legalize medical cannabis. However, we often remove ordinary medicines from these schedules, as we did this year with the epilepsy drug Epidiolex. These bills pass, but never with two thirds of the votes. Thus, this amendment would likely preclude the legalization of even FDA-approved medications going forward.

Two other voter-restriction bills (HB223 criminalizing ballot delivery and HB255 blocking college students from registering to vote with student IDs) are sitting in committee – I hope never to be heard again

Happenings at the Statehouse – March 3, 2021

Things have been getting much more contentious these last couple of weeks. And there’s no sign of it ending any time soon.

Education

Yesterday House GOP members voted to reject a $6 million grant from the federal government that would have allowed communities around Idaho to expand early childhood education offerings at no cost to the state budget. One opponent of the bill (HB226) argued: “Any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.” Others vilified the administrator of the grant as a liberal proponent of “social justice ideology”. The upshot is that this money would have expanded programs to boost literacy and school readiness, and that opportunity was turned away.

HB215, a voucher bill, is awaiting a vote on the House floor. This bill would allocate $35 million to provide scholarships of approximately $6,000 each to qualifying families to use for private school tuition or homeschooling. My concern is that there are many accountability metrics applied to public schools as a condition of receiving taxpayer money, but none that would apply to these private recipients of tax dollars. And, when Idaho is 51st in the nation in public education funding, I question whether it makes sense to funnel tens of millions of dollars into private schools.

HB221 is also awaiting a floor vote. This bill seeks to address our teacher shortage by allowing districts to hire teachers who do not have a state-recognized teacher certification. This one also concerns me – I would rather see us address our teacher shortage by paying a wage that entices qualified teachers rather than by dropping standards for qualification.

Vote Suppression

S1110 makes it twice as difficult as it currently is to collect enough signatures for a ballot initiative. Given that under the current standards, there has only been one successful initiative in the past decade, this bill would essentially drive a stake through the heart of the ballot initiative process in Idaho.

This bill passed the Senate last week and is headed to House State Affairs. If you’d like to speak up for your ballot initiative rights, you can send an email here.

HB223 passed the House this week. It would make it a felony to deliver someone else’s ballot for them, even if you are faithfully carrying out their request. A similar law was recently struck down in Montana because it unduly suppresses the votes of those living in tribal areas where neighbors often pick up and deliver each other’s mail. Another similar law in Arizona is now being litigated in the Supreme Court. I am concerned both that this law criminalizes innocent behavior, and that it will unduly suppress the votes of the elderly, disabled, Native Americans living in remote tribal areas, and others who depend on friends or caregivers for assistance and mail delivery. If you have a couple of minutes, here’s my debate against it, and if you want to speak out on this bill, you can email here.

The vote suppression efforts continue with HB255, a bill that would prevent the use of student IDs or even passports for voter registration. This would significantly decrease student voting, as many students don’t get a driver’s license issued for a dorm address where they’ll only be living for a short time, and they rely on their student ID’s. I would like to see us encouraging young people to vote, not throwing obstacles in their path. Idaho has an excellent election system currently with no sign of fraud, and I see no justification for efforts that make it much harder for legal voters to vote. If you want to send an email on this bill, you can do so here.

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.

“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.

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.

3/25/2019 – Sex education opt-in bill (House Bill 120) blocked in the Senate

It looks like HB120, the bill that would require parents to affirmatively opt in to allow their kids to receive sex education, has been blocked on the Senate side. And it appears that the school funding formula is unlikely to be voted on this year – there was just too much contention and uncertainty about who would win and lose. Discussions will likely continue through the summer and we’ll see a new version next year.

3/1/2019 – Progress blocked on early childhood education bill

The House Education Committee refused to even print an early childhood education bill, killing our hopes for progress on this front this year. Meanwhile, HB120, a bill that would require parents to affirmatively opt in to allow their kids to receive sex education, passed on a party-line vote (Democrats voting no) and is headed to the Floor.

1/21/2019 – Boise schools would lose $6.6 million under proposed school funding formula

A new proposed school funding formula has been put forth that is based on student enrollment and takes various other factors into account. According to this analysis, Boise schools would stand to lose $6.6 million under the proposed new formula, so I will have to give long and hard thought into whether the plan makes sense. I hope you will come to our town halls to discuss this and other important items coming up.