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.