Greetings from the 1st Regular Session of the 63rd Idaho Legislature. I'm honored to be back in the Capitol representing District 26 and all the residents of Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln Counties.
Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter kicked off the session on Monday with his annual State of the State & Budget address. The Governor's address and budget priorities focused on education, infrastructure, community crisis center funding and continuing his fight against same-sex marriage. Despite the emphasis on education and the economy, the Governor did not address pre-k programs or raising Idaho's minimum wage.
I applaud the Governor for his K-through-career goals and his stated appreciation for the critical role of early learning. My colleagues and I have been talking for years about investing in our kids, pre-K-through-career. Idaho employers are too often unable to find the skilled workers required in a complex and competitive economy, not to mention the importance of a qualified workforce in luring more job-creation to the state.
The Governor's Fiscal Year 2016 budget recommendation proposes a 7.4% increase in K-12 public school funding. This additional $100+ million will help fund teacher training, professional development, and compensation as recommended by the Task Force for Improving Education. The Governor is requesting an additional $20 million for discretionary/operational funds for local schools.
This funding infusion comes at a time of great urgency for our schools. Since 2009, we have added 14,000 students to our classrooms and 94 of Idaho's 115 school districts have had to pass supplemental levies to stay operational. Idaho spends nearly $4,000 less per-pupil than the national average so this is a critical step in the right direction.
Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra and Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, who will retain his seat on the Joint Finance & Appropriations Committee, are new to their positions. One must pause here. Education represents the largest portion of our state's budget and an Education Chairman is now also on the Finance Committee. In her preliminary budget, Superintendent Ybarra is asking for less money (a 6.4% increase) than the Governor, but more for discretionary funds for public schools. We will see where that takes us.
JFAC approved over $10 million during the 2014 session to cover broadband delivery for schools via the Idaho Education Network through February. This unexpected expenditure was required when the state was denied federal phone tax dollars (covering 75% of the costs) due to concerns over the contract bidding process. In November, a judge voided the contract and an audit of the IEN, demanded by JFAC and released yesterday, revealed a serious underutilization at the local level of this increasingly costly service. We came into the legislature knowing the contract would need to be rebid and now are confronted with the realization that the entire program needs to be reevaluated.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Transportation Director Brian Ness recently reassessed our obligations for maintaining our highways and bridges and it remains $262 million annually just to keep our existing roads in their current condition.
Even Governor Otter acknowledged in his address that infrastructure investments falls within the proper role of government stating that "every dollar we invest now in our roads and bridges will save motorists and taxpayers $6-$14 later."
I agree and this was one of the top issues raised as I travelled our district. Infrastructure is a matter of public safety and economics given the financial burden we are chaining to local governments and future generations if we don't act now. Infrastructure is more than roads; it includes sewage and water systems, public transportation and the movement of commercial goods.
Despite being at a tipping point for need, there are many challenges to action. After being rebuffed by the legislature in 2009 over transportation funding, Governor Otter is ceding the issue to lawmakers. GARVEE funding created a system of winners and losers depending on district. The federal government is considering a national gas tax increase. And a U of I McClure study found public support for road improvements but no appetite for the funding that requires.
By refusing to implement the Healthy Idaho Plan thrice endorsed by the Governor's own Medicaid Redesign Group, the legislature is closing the door on hard-working Idahoans.
We are closing the door on taxpayers who are taxed twice when money paid in federal taxes is used by states willing to cover uninsured residents as part of the ACA while Idaho taxpayers and counties pick up the tab for indigent care here at home. This is crippling on our local governments and is not fiscally responsible.
We are closing the door on scores of Idahoans who die each year due to lack of health care coverage and on the 70,000+ residents who fall into the insurance "coverage gap." These hard-working citizens earn too much to qualify for existing Medicaid coverage and too little to qualify for subsidies under the state's health insurance exchange.
And we are closing the door on our most vulnerable, including our brave veterans. The Healthy Idaho Plan would extend coverage to nearly all Idahoans with mental health issues including our service men and women coming home with PTSD. Idaho's suicide rates are among the highest in the nation and the percentage of uninsured veterans is equally high.
The Healthy Idaho Plan places a strong focus on personal accountability, cost-sharing and managed care. It offers us a morally and fiscally responsible way to deal with our crisis of care and the Governor has urged the legislature to hold hearings and I hope this leads to action this year. Let's close the coverage gap, not the door.
State budgets, like our household budgets, are about priorities and where we choose to spend money. Tax cuts over education funding, inefficient catastrophic care over Medicaid redesign, costly contract scandals over efficient government services that benefit all Idahoans.
On behalf of all of you, I will listen, learn and take action based on the values that represent the best of Idaho. I welcome your input on issues of importance to you. Contact me by phone (208-332-1353) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).