Greetings from the Statehouse! Our first week exploded with news about what will and won't be addressed this session following the Governor's State of the State and Budget address on Monday.
The Governor made a surprising announcement that the state will soon take over operation of the Idaho Correctional Center, the privately-operated state prison south of Boise plagued by lawsuits and scandals over inmate violence and prison staffing.
Many unsettling questions arise. The prison will take $26 million annually to operate and $1.9 million for the transition and training, and this all needs to be resolved before the existing contract expires on June 30, 2014. Furthermore, not all expenses are reflected in the budget. We are under two court orders to meet explicit guidelines including proper staffing and training. Idaho pays too little to keep employees which means the state often expends money on training only to have high turnover of personnel who go to other facilities or out of state for more pay and benefits. This also happens with our judges and magistrates, Idaho State Police, teachers, and state agencies.
Idaho has some of the harshest prison policies and penalties for parole violations in the nation: an average of 3.9 years in prison for a non-violent crime and 4.1 years for drug offenses (twice the national average). The Idaho Criminal Justice System Task Force studied best-practices nationwide and we anticipate reform legislation this year. This will help address the fact that Idaho has among the highest incarceration rates in the nation despite the fact that we have one of the lowest crimes rates in the country.
Which brings us to Idaho's other rankings in the nation: 50th in family (per-capita) income, 50th in education spending and support, and the highest percentage of minimum wage workers. Education support and household economy are related and need to be invested in together.
The Idaho Education Task Force, comprised of 31 professional, dedicated members, made 20 recommendations on how to improve and invest in Idaho's education system. The Governor has proposed a 5-year plan to accomplish all 20 recommendations. His fiscal year 2015 budget proposes $54.7 million as a start, $35 million toward restoring the $82 million cut in annual operational funding during the economic downturn, plus funding for technology and professional development for teachers. Governor Otter calls this plan "K-through-Career." We Democrats would prefer "Pre-K-through-Career."
Not including Medicaid Redesign in the State of the State, even for discussion, ignores over 100,000 low-income but hard-working Idahoans and, tragically, mental health coverage. Not only is it financially irresponsible (to the tune of over $84 million in savings), it is clinically inappropriate. The financial burden falls squarely on local governments and individuals.
Idaho could do better in recognizing the debt that we owe our veterans for serving their country. Our veterans struggle to find employment, adequate health care and the mental health services they need. Our wonderful VA hospital in Boise cannot serve all the needs of our service men and women coming home with PTSD, brain injuries, and amputations. They come home to their families who have no rural community-based programs to help them. Don't they and all Idahoans deserve that the state take responsibility for finding solutions for their health care?
Another issue muzzled this session is transportation infrastructure. The Governor's transportation task force reported in 2010 that state and local highway and bridge funding fell $262 million short of meeting annual operation, preservation, and restoration needs; a figure reiterated by the Transportation director in 2013. That's over a quarter of a billion dollars a year, a figure which will grow exponentially as maintenance is deferred, in addition to posing a huge threat to public safety.
Finally, access to public lands, to hunt, fish, hike, and recreate is one of the biggest gifts we have in Idaho and one of the greatest legacies that we leave to our children. I am on the Federal Lands Task Force which will continue to meet this year and make its recommendation in 2015. Idaho cannot afford to take over federal lands. The state does not have the money for fighting fires, law enforcement, road and trail maintenance, and so many other expenses required to manage those lands. No amount of timbering will cover those costs. So, the state would have to sell them to the private sector which means no trespassing signs go up and we all lose access. A future newsletter will cover this in more detail.
As a reminder, last year we found Republican colleagues who were willing to put partisan politics aside and cooperate to find the best solutions for Idaho families. As we begin this session, my hope is that we can build on that same spirit of cooperation this year. That said many in the Majority party will face opposition in the Primary election so some predict a "legislature lite," where many of the major issues and decisions will either be deferred or even buried in the rush to get out of town. I strongly believe we cannot just wait until next year when no one is up for re-election. Our communities deserve leadership and opportunity now.
I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to represent you in the Idaho State Senate and welcome your input into the decision-making process. Please email me at email@example.com or call my office at 208-332-1353.