By MARC STEWART
Taxes and health care insurance reform are expected to be the big issues when the Idaho legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 8.
“Those are on everyone’s minds,” said Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene. “…It won’t be a slam dunk, either.”
Idaho lawmakers will be dealing with changes to federal tax laws and President Donald Trump’s removal of the individual mandate requirement as part of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
“It’s all pretty new,” said Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens. “Some of the changes will have an impact on Idaho, but really don’t know what it means. We should be getting a report for the Idaho tax commission soon.”
Trump signed a massive tax reform bill in December and members of the North Idaho legislative delegation are wondering what impact it will have on the state. That’s because Idaho typically passes a tax conformity bill as a housekeeping measure to align Idaho’s tax laws with the federal government. Now, there will be robust discussions about the issue.
“I supported tax conformity last time and I probably will again,” Souza said. “I want to see the whole plan as we move forward with taxes. I am tired of the Band-Aid approach. We have to have a comprehensive tax policy so we know where we’re going.”
The other 500-pound gorilla in the Boise chambers will be what to do about people without health care insurance or inadequate health care insurance.
“Health care is constantly a topic we will debate over and over,” said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene. “It’s an incredibly important area and the Legislature wants to find an answer, but it has to find the right answer.”
Most of the Kootenai County delegation agrees that there are more unknowns than knowns for lawmakers and citizens alike. Already, there are proposals to the federal government, including one from the state’s Department of Health and Welfare and one from the Department of Insurance, to waive Medicaid requirements in Idaho for high-risk individuals. These individuals suffer from serious health problems, such as paralyzation, cancer and end-stage renal failure.
Idaho’s individual market, which doesn’t include Medicaid or Medicare recipients, is 125,000 Idahoans at a total cost of $500 million a year. Between 2,000 and 2,500 of those people in the individual market have complex conditions that account for $200 million annually.
To potentially reduce costs to the individual market, the state could create a high-risk pool of people with costly medical issues — the theory being that it would drive down costs, said Sen. Bob Nonini.
“If we could move them to Medicare managed care, that would stabilize and lower the cost of the individual market by up to 20 percent,” said Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. “It won’t be a quick decision because this issue is so complex.”
Local legislators are mindful that 2018 is an election year and that politics could play a factor in a number of bills being presented.
“This is going to be a political session,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. “The governor’s vetoes from last year are going to weigh on our minds.”
Barbieri and others point to Gov. Butch Otter’s vetoes of five bills, including the repeal of Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax on food after the Legislature adjourned last spring, as a source of frustration.
A group of 30 lawmakers sued Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney in an effort to overturn the veto. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled in favor of the governor, upholding his veto. The court also ruled that the Idaho Constitution requires the Legislature to present all bills to the governor before they adjourn for the year.
The ruling could become a rallying point for lawmakers in the battle between legislative, judicial and executive powers. Barbieri called the Idaho Supreme Court’s ruling “unsettling” and believes his fellow lawmakers need to address the “marginalization” of the legislative body.
“We all felt strongly about the bills that passed the House and Senate,” he said. “There probably will be some backlash this year. There is concern that an individual branch overstepped its authority. Judicial branch doing the same thing will be a part of the discussion.”
Souza said she supports checks and balances.
“It’s important for different branches to keep their power as close to even as possible,” she said. “The Legislature needs to have the power to come back if something is passed and then vetoed after we’ve adjourned.”
Solutions could include a bill or series of bills that would allow lawmakers to reconvene if the governor vetoes a bill after adjournment, Vick said.
Vick vows to bring back the repeal of the grocery sales tax on food, which is connected to his pushback against the executive branch.
“I am confident we’re going to get it through this year,” he said. “It passed last year, but the governor vetoed it. If we have to have a veto override this year, we will. It’s important.”
Rep. Luke Malek countered that the Legislature needs to get its work done earlier in the session, making the governor’s vetoes a moot point. “We should pass these bills sooner instead of waiting until the end,” he said.
Here’s what other North Idaho lawmakers are expecting during the 2018 session.
Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene
Mendive said each session takes on a life of its own, but education will be prominent this year.
“Education is always big,” said Mendive, a proponent of education savings accounts — somewhat like a voucher system. “These have worked well in Nevada, and Arizona just expanded their program. I think it’s an idea worth exploring.”
The idea behind education savings accounts is to allow parents to opt their children out of the state education system (kindergarten through 12th grade).
Mendive said each student in Idaho is allocated roughly $6,000 annually. Money from the state’s general fund would go directly to the parent instead of local school districts.
“It’s a designated school account that gives parents the ability to make alternative education choices for the children. It could be private religious schools. It gives parents the option.”
Mendive believes education saving accounts would help special needs students and students who struggle in the traditional educational system.
“Hopefully, parents and teachers would work together to determine the best educational path for the student,” he said. “The money would have to be spent on approved education expenses and there would be a board to oversee the program to make sure money is being spent correctly.”
Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene
Amador said the Legislature will have “significant discussions” about public education, addressing teacher salaries, master teacher qualifications and how the state allocates money to school districts.
“The teacher career ladder is in its fourth year out of the original plan,” Amador said. “Sizable increases in the state budget have been made toward increasing salaries. Last year, it was $60 million.”
Amador also said the Legislature will look at recommendations from the governor’s higher education task force, including centralizing administrative functions of the state’s universities and colleges.
Amador wants to protect victims of child abuse by supporting legislation that would keep 911 calls exempt from public records requests. “It protects the accuser because most times child abuse is reported by a family member,” he said. “It would keep that out of the media and prevent abusers from confronting the accuser before the case is heard in court. Once in court, they would know because it would be part of the evidence in the case.”
Amador also is a proponent of legislation that would provide legal protections for mothers breastfeeding their children in public.
“Idaho is the only state in the country with no protections,” he said. “We’re behind the times. It’s perfectly acceptable to breastfeed your child.”
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene
Malek agrees that taxes, health care reform and higher education are going to be the big issues this year. His own legislative agenda includes finding a “free market solution” to liquor licensing in the state.
“I think we need to deregulate the process and break up the liquor licensing monopoly,” Malek said. “We need to make things more competitive.”
Malek is also a proponent of Marsy’s law, a victim’s rights bill that requires crime victims be notified and heard in most criminal proceedings, receive protection and restitution. It also allows victims to converse with prosecutors and prohibits long delays in criminal cases. The measure has been passed in a half dozen states with many more considering it this year.
“Last year it passed in the Senate but died in House committee,” Malek said. “This is a resource if your rights are violated. I believe it will pass this year.”
Malek is running for the U.S. Congress seat now held by Rep. Raul Labrador, who’s in the race for Idaho governor.
Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls
Cheatham said he’s working on a handful of bills, but declined to release information about them until the bills are heard in committee.
“I am always looking for opportunities to rid unnecessary rules and regulation,” he said. “It’s about clarifying Idaho codes and clarifying the civil process.”
Transportation also is a key issue with the influx of vehicles across the state.
“One of the issues not being talked about will be transportation,” Cheatham said. “We hope to get some stuff done in regards to maintenance and repair.”
Cheatham said he’s always looking for opportunities to reduce taxes.
“Any opportunities to save money for the small guy is what I am looking for,” Cheatham said. “I am in favor of more local control over state control.”
Rep. Eric Redman, R-Athol
Redman, who is not seeking re-election, said education and improving career technical education is a top priority. He said transportation funding will be a challenge as the state wrestles with the health care and education budgets.
“It’s one of the best things we can do,” Redman said. “It helps people get a job right away and employers need people with skills. It’s really about developing our economy.”
Redman also advocates lowering individual income taxes and said the state should look at sales tax exemptions as well.
Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene
Nonini said he will continue to advocate for education in 2018. He supports the teacher career education ladder. He also serves on the higher education task force. He is a passionate supporter of career technical education.
“It’s important that we provide a trained workforce for businesses,” he said.
He is proposing a new STEM diploma for high school graduates. It would recognize students who complete four years of math and science instead of Idaho’s three-year requirement.
Nonini is running for Idaho lieutenant governor.
Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene
Souza has two issues on her own agenda, school board elections and transparency in government.
She hopes to pass a school board election bill this year.
“We’ve reached a compromise with the Idaho School Board to moving the trustee elections of odd number years to coincide with city elections instead of having them in May,” she said. “The last two election cycles, school boards have had 5 percent and 8 percent turnout. That’s extremely low and costly to the voter. Moving it will get better quality and participation.”
She also hopes to make changes to Idaho’s public record and open meeting laws this session.
“These changes would be very helpful in improving transparency and responsiveness,” she said. “It’s about improving accountability of the government to the people.”