Here is an update of issues and actions I'd like to highlight as week four of the Idaho Legislative session comes to a close.
In my previous newsletter, I mentioned a proposal by Speaker of the House Scott Bedke that would shift savings from ending the grocery tax credit for the majority of Idahoans to lower taxes for upper-income individuals and businesses. Economic analysis of the tax shift indicated it would negatively impact middle-class families. This week, Speaker Bedke pulled his bill from consideration.
When the House and Senate Health & Welfare Committees held a joint listening session last week, many were surprised to learn that Optum Idaho, which has been the contractor for Medicaid-reimbursed outpatient behavioral health services since September 1st, is already having serious problems managing pre-authorizations and other administrative functions. Legislators heard complaints from mental health caregivers about being placed on hold for hours. Obviously, time is of the essence when requesting approval to care for patients in mental health or substance abuse crisis. Long hold times that violate the terms of the state's contract cannot be tolerated. Now that legislators have been alerted to the problem, we can go about working toward a swift solution.
Another development that will help those challenged by mental health or substance abuse disorders is Governor Otter's recommendation to fund three crisis centers in Boise, Idaho Falls and Coeur d'Alene (more communities would be added if the $5.1 million pilot project is successful). The centers will operate 24/7 and trained staff will provide immediate, risk-reduction care to individuals in crisis who heretofore were relegated to jails, juvenile detention facilities, or emergency rooms. Provided the funding request passes through the legislature, the centers should be operational by year's end.
Given the sobering fact that Idaho has the highest percentage of workers who earn only the minimum wage, which is currently $7.25, I am working on a bill that would gradually increase the figure over the next few years. I feel a responsibility to initiate a conversation in the Statehouse about what we can and should do to address the fact that 31,000 Idahoans make what for many is not a living wage despite working full time. It's ironic to me that this month marks the 100 year anniversary of Henry Ford's decision to more than double the wages paid to his laborers. This was a decision by a hard-nosed businessman who believed the move would stabilize his workforce which is exactly what it did. The Transportation Department recently gave a slight boost in pay to snowplow drivers and this move took a disruptive turnover rate down to nearly zero. There are economic benefits to be gained when workers earn a fair wage.
Two new bills were introduced this week that captured a significant amount of press coverage and the attention of lawmakers such as myself who are leery of "pre-emptive" legislation. HB426 would allow licensed professionals to violate accepted standards of care and conduct and HB427 would allow businesses to discriminate under the guise of defending religious beliefs. These bills would also enable the state to usurp local control from any cities, including Ketchum, that have passed ordinances expanding human rights protections in housing and employment. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other laws currently protect religious freedom so this bill is not only a solution in search of a problem, it will result in pitting followers of one faith against followers of another and that's a conflict with no winners. It would be bitterly ironic if we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by taking Idaho back to a time when prejudice was commonly practiced under the pretext of protecting religious beliefs.
In a change from details provided in last week's newsletter, Gov. Otter is requesting $15 million to fund water resources projects including $4 million to buy water rights from Simplot Corp. to guarantee the water supply to Mountain Home Air Force Base and millions of dollars to study future dam projects. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the amount today as a supplemental appropriation for immediate funding. Remember, this appropriation is just for studies. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars and many permitting hurdles to build dams. The last dams built in Idaho were American Falls and Priest Lake in 1978.
Also, as a follow-up to my Week One newsletter, SB1245 passed the Senate floor yesterday. It appropriates over $1.9 million to the Department of Corrections to cover the transition costs and personnel training required for the state to assume control of the Idaho Correctional Center (ICC). This funding is time-sensitive given the need to assure that a well-trained workforce is ready to take over prison operations by July1, 2014.
Senator Jim Risch released a video this week of a Senate select intelligence committee hearing in which he questioned U.S. intelligence officials about the efforts being expended to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity. The officials testified that they had met with Bob and Jani Bergdahl and were working tirelessly to negotiate Bowe's return home. My prayers for Bowe extend to those working on his behalf.
Some of the issues I've addressed in my newsletters were included in a speech I gave this past Tuesday at the Andrus Center for Public Policy here in Boise. You can listen to the speech through a podcast available to iTunes subscribers (scroll down to Outreach & Community and look for the Andrus Center icon).
Here is an update on the Town Hall meetings being held throughout District 26 in the coming weeks. I hope you can attend one or more as this is a great opportunity to get legislative updates and share your views with me and Representatives Steve Miller and Donna Pence.
- Feb. 7 5:00 p.m. Ketchum City Hall
- Feb. 8 8:00 a.m. Oak Street Deli, Bellevue
- Feb. 8 10:30 a.m. Shoshone Community Ctr
- Feb. 8 12:00 p.m. Zeppie's Pizza, Gooding
- Feb. 8 2:00 p.m. Wendell City Hall
- Feb. 8 3:30 p.m. Hagerman City Hall
- Feb. 14 3:00 p.m. Fairfield Senior Center
Of course, your views can always be delivered by calling 208-332-1353 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I continue to be honored to represent District 26 in the legislature.