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Boise, ID 83720-0081

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Boise Idaho Senator Michelle Stennett, Idaho State Senate Minority Leader

News Blog

Legislative News, End of Session, 2014

Michelle Stennett

Thursday marked the end of the 2014 legislative session, the shortest in a decade.  When you gave me the honor of serving you in the Idaho Senate, I promised to work hard, to lead with integrity, and to always be guided by the needs of Idaho's children, families and businesses. I am also honored to represent the fine Democratic senators as their Minority Leader and I'm proud of the accomplishments our team made this year despite the issues Idahoans value most - education, economic opportunity and access to quality healthcare - being buried under election-year posturing.

Education was supposed to be the big issue of 2014.  On the final day of the session, the Senate Education Committee Chairman said there will be "substantial" changes to education year.  Education has been underfunded for 15 years, a trend that worsened dramatically during the recession.  The 20 recommendations of the governor's education task force were either left unfulfilled or only partially implemented.  The 5.1% ($66 million) increase in public school funding, while nearly double the 2.9% recommended by Governor Otter, only gets the state back to 2009 spending levels without allowing for 14,000 additional students or addressing the costs of implementing Idaho Core Standards.  But I must acknowledge the good that was accomplished: a 1% increase in pay for teachers and administrators; over $8 million for professional development; and nearly $16 million in leadership award premiums. 

Correction reform made substantial progress this year.  On July 1st, the state will take over control of the Idaho Correctional Center in Boise from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).  The private prison contractor has been embroiled in lawsuits over prison violence and fraud.  In February the state settled for $1 million to release CCA from all liability over understaffing ICC and falsifying records.  The FBI just agreed to take on a criminal investigation of the Tennessee-based company at the urging of Democratic Leaders.  The Idaho Criminal Justice Task Force met over the interim to study Idaho's harsh sentencing policies and broken parole system, especially given Idaho's low crime rates.  From that came S1357, S1393 and H542, justice reinvestment measures that will become the model for other states.

Although extending coverage through Medicaid redesign would have been the more fiscally prudent and humane action (saving 120 lives and nearly $100 million while providing 100% coverage for mental health), there were still positive advances in healthcare.  Funding for preventative  dental coverage for those with disabilities was reinstated through Medicaid.  Five new medical residency seats were added to the  WWAMI program which trains new doctors through a five-state collaborative. This will help address the fact that Idaho is ranked 49th in the nation for the number of physicians per 100,000 residents with many of our doctors nearing retirement.  Over $2 million in funding will go toward the creation of at least one new  mental health crisis center and the  Behavioral Health System of Care (BHSC) was updated to integrate mental health and substance abuse treatment.  We strengthened prescription drug monitoring for abuse prevention and athird family practice residency was added that will help improve access to primary care in Coeur d'Alene.  And, after 20 years of work, an organized trauma and emergency system was approved which could save 100 lives annually and millions in costs.

Public sector wages have begun to rise after years of cuts and furloughs. In addition to the 1% pay increase for educators, the minimum teacher salary has risen from $31,000 to 31,700.  State employees will receive a pay increase (1% permanent and 1% in one-time merit bonuses for FY15) and the committee tasked with evaluating compensation for public sector workers will meet again next year to continue evaluating wages. The House amended S1395 to reduce the pay raise granted to constitutional officers from 2.5% to 1%, a reduction that was quickly approved by the Senate.

When the good people of District 26 elected me, I understood my first responsibility was to listen to constituents and work to enact laws based on their input.  Both the legislation that passed and the measures denied consideration this year raise questions about the real role of the public in crafting public policy; it seemed the main theme of this session was ignoring or suppressing the voice of the people.   

These bills faced widespread opposition:  Guns on Campus (S1254) - Effective July 1st, Idaho's colleges and universities will be forced to allow concealed firearms on their campuses against the wishes of all significant stakeholders, many of whom were shut out of the public hearing in the Senate.  Ag-Gag (S1337) - As of February 28th, anyone who films animal abuse at an agriculture production facility will face a fine of up to $5,000 or a year in jail (double the sentence for actual animal abusers). I know many producers in our district who run exemplary businesses, a reality tainted by a law, already being challenged in court, that sends a message to the world that Idaho's ag industry has something shameful to hide.  Luker Laws (H426, 427) - These bills would have made prejudice legal in Idaho.  After 500 citizens showed up to testify against 427, the House committee voted to advance the bill until even the sponsor acknowledged his laws would be a "sword for discrimination" and pulled them from consideration.  Wolves (H470a) - This bill had to be amended because it violated Article IV, Section 20 of the Idaho Constitution which limits the number of boards allowed within the Executive Branch.  Idaho already has a board tasked with controlling predatory animals.  Although the original request of $2 million in one-time money became $400,000 on-going, we'll have spent the $2 million within six years.  That equates to $4,000 per wolf, close to the $6,000 spent per year to educate a child. My request to include non-lethal control measures, which have been very successful in the Wood River Valley, was deemed a "non-starter" by the bill's sponsor.

These measures were denied consideration: Medicaid - The House refused to even print a bill introduced by their Minority Leader, Dr. John Rusche, intended to redesign Medicaid to extend health care coverage to over 100,000 citizens and save the state millions. Add the Words - For the 8th year, the majority party refused to allow even a public hearing over adding the words "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the Idaho Human Rights Act.  Justice delayed is justice denied.  Pre-K pilot (H586) - A bipartisan bill to authorize a 3-year Pre-K pilot program to test the benefits of early education in Idaho, one of only nine states that provide no Pre-K funding, was not allowed a hearing.  Minimum Wage (S1334) - A measure I introduced to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $9.75 by mid 2015 was denied a hearing despite Idaho's ranking #1 in the nation for jobs paying the minimum wage (currently $7.25). State Amphibian (S1271) - Even 7th grader Ilah Hickman's voice was silenced by House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher who refused to grant a hearing for her bill designating an official state amphibian after years of dedicated effort on her part.

The statehouse is a place where all citizens should be welcome to come and speak their truth.  Whether through testimony or by demonstrating at the Statehouse, no one should be silenced.  Please stay engaged in the issues being confronted in the Capitol as they have significant impact on the lives of Idahoans.  I will be engaged myself this summer fighting for our natural spaces as a member of the interim committee studying the transfer of public lands from federal to state control.  The state does not have the resources to fight fires, provide law enforcement or maintain roads or trails and would quickly be forced to sell our lands.  Raise your voice if access to Idaho's natural world is important to you.  I will always listen.

Respectfully, Michelle