WEEK THREE, January 26-30, 2015
The pace of legislation is still gaining steam in these early days and most of our committee time is devoted to vetting gubernatorial appointments and reviewing agency rules implementing legislation passed in 2014. Beyond these housekeeping duties, there was still tremendous activity in the Capitol this week, much of it dramatic, some of it historic.
Yesterday, after 21 hours of public comments heard over three days, and representing some of the most compelling testimony ever shared in these halls, the House State Affairs Committee voted against passing HB2. This is the ninth year an attempt was made to expand the existing protections in the Idaho Human Rights Act (IHRA) to include the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" and the first year the bill was granted a public hearing. In state government that's called progress but for our citizens who confront discrimination and the potential loss of employment or housing, we are idling.
Generally, the 134 proponents who testified spoke of their personal experiences or those of their loved ones, friends or co-workers and the stories revealed the many challenges we continue to face in society. This despite the tremendous movement of acceptance sweeping our state with polls showing overwhelming support for passage. Some parents spoke of losing their children to other states where they can conduct their lives with dignity and some related the horror of losing their children to suicide because they did not feel safe here at home.
Among the 54 opponents who spoke, there were several inflammatory claims that did not bear much basis in fact and some of which were entirely unrelated to the language of the bill itself. According to testimony from legal experts (including an opinion by the office of the Attorney General), HB2 would not inhibit free speech or violate the sincerely held beliefs of religious groups. There are already well-defined religious freedom protections at the state and federal level which are further enshrined in the IHRA and would stand even if these four words are added. There is gratitude for those who made the hearing possible, heartfelt respect for those who testified, disappointment with the vote, and an unwavering commitment to Add the Words.
While this emotionally-charged vote was being cast, newly-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra made her first presentation before the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. We already know that she is proposing a 6.4% ($87.1 million) overall increase versus the 7.4% ($101.1 million) recommended by Governor Otter. Her presentation was short on specifics but did reveal some of her intentions. The emphasis on discretionary/operational funding for districts and the need for smaller class sizes in K-3 is commendable. However, the class size issue (estimated to cost $3-5 million annually) is unfunded in her budget and even with an increase in per-classroom funding, her recommendation puts us well short of 2009 levels without accounting for inflation and rising enrollment. The new Superintendent also requested $25 million for the career ladder but surprised us with a proposal to establish a pilot program to test the teacher pay incentive recommended by the Governor's education task force rather than implement it across all 115 school districts.
Also this week, State Board of Education president Emmy Atchley came before JFAC seeking a 19.4% increase in state support for higher education (in contrast to the 3% recommended by Governor Otter). According to Atchley, overall state funding for higher education has fallen from roughly 13% to 8.6%, more than any other sector in state government, over the past two decades while enrollment grew dramatically. Perhaps that explains why University of Idaho President Chuck Staben proposed a tuition freeze this week.
While this was Education Week in JFAC, last week was Health & Human Services Week which covers issues ranging from aging to veterans and includes the Department of Health & Welfare. Education and HHS combined represent 71% of general fund appropriations so following these budget presentations is critical to understanding funding priorities and these, and other agency budgets, can be viewed online.
There was some great news coming out of the HHS presentation. Idaho's Suicide Prevention Hotline (a public/private partnership that costs the state $50,000 per year) is fully operational 24/7 and has saved at least 100 lives. That is an incalculable return on our investment and something lawmakers should consider when confronting the issue of redesigning Medicaid for enhanced coverage. We also got positive feedback on the effectiveness of the new Idaho Falls-based crisis center funded by the 2014 legislature. The community has been financially supportive, which is critical given the long-term goal of cost-sharing between state and local entities, and 82 people have been seen for treatment since the doors opened in December. DHW Director Richard Armstrong echoed the Governor's request for funding an additional crisis center next year. On the policy side, the Senate and House Health & Welfare Committees held a joint public hearing this morning. Testimony revealed continuing concerns over Optum, Idaho's behavioral health services contractor, and many testified in support of closing the coverage gap as addressed in last week's newsletter.
Also today, the interim Federal Lands Task Force met to submit the final report of this 2-years-long study on the feasibility of the state taking over management of Idaho's public lands from the federal government. Representative Mat Erpelding and I submitted a Minority Report, which will be included in the official record, in opposition to the final recommendation. We oppose continuing to spend taxpayer dollars pursuing an idea that violates our state and federal constitutions, proposes creating a poorly-defined legislative board, and may extend oversight to the Idaho Department of Lands which is required by statute to manage lands for the highest financial return with no consideration for promoting public access.
We can discuss these issues and more at our District 26 mid-session Town Hall meetings:
Fri., Feb. 6th
6pm Ketchum - City Hall
Sat., Feb. 7th
8am Bellevue - Oak Street Deli
10:30am Shoshone - Community Ctr
Noon Gooding - Planning & Zoning Office
2pm Wendell - City Office
4pm Hagerman -City Office
Even if you can't make it, feel free to contact me by phone (208-332-1353) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).