Week One-January 11-15, 2016
I am back at my desk in Boise for the 2016 legislative session where I will be reporting weekly on issues that impact the day-to-day lives of Idahoans, with a special emphasis on the residents of District 26. As always, our first week began with Governor Otter's State of the State Address which focused heavily on boosting the education funding so drastically cut during the economic downturn.
The governor's budget proposal calls for a 9% increase in higher education funding and a 7.9% ($116.6 million) increase in K-12 funding. In an effort to fully implement the 20 recommendations established by the governor's Task Force for Improving Education, he proposed the following allocations:
- Nearly $39 million for year two of the 5-year career ladder plan for addressing teacher compensation
- $1.8 million to add non-instructional staff (nurses, counselors, etc.) to the career ladder
- $5 million for professional development and teacher training with a focus on mentoring new teachers
- $5 million for college/career counseling for students
- $30 million in discretionary funding
This boost to discretionary (or operational) funds brings Idaho's schools back to the pre-recession funding levels of 2009. However, it does not address inflation, nearly 16,000 more students, the 4-day school week impacting almost 27,000 kids, or the supplemental levies imposed on local taxpayers to keep school operational. Despite this shortcoming, the budget has earned the support of the State Board of Education, the Idaho Education Association and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It's nice to see consensus among our stakeholders after the divisions created by the Luna Laws.
Investment in education, including professional/technical training and higher education, pays off with a skilled workforce. Only with a qualified workforce can we attract businesses to Idaho that pay living wages and offer incentives to keep young people from seeking better lives elsewhere. Fifty percent of Idaho's college graduates move out of state within four years of earning a degree. Our state could lose 100,000 jobs by 2020 from a lack of skilled workers.
The other big initiative proposed by Governor Otter is the Primary Care Access Program, a rudimentary attempt to address the 78,000 Idahoans denied access to medical treatment because they fall into the coverage gap (between Medicaid and the state insurance exchange). Idahoans are dying from manageable diseases like asthma due to lack of care and we have the second highest number of uninsured veterans in the nation.
The proposal provides basic doctor visits but does not cover service like acute care, hospitalization, emergency services, cancer treatment, prescriptions, or mental health care. The $32.4 million price tag would come out of diminishing tobacco/cigarette taxes. This funding source is forecast to drop $1.5 million by FY20 and I'm uncomfortable with any plan that relies on taxing a habit we hope to eradicate.
The smarter move would be to redesign Medicaid to insure the gap population. We pay federal tax dollars into Medicaid without receiving the full share of benefits allowable. Our tax dollars cover payments for indigent care services straining the resources of Idaho's counties. Requesting $30 million more for a plan that provides inadequate coverage makes for an expensive and inefficient healthcare patchwork.
On a final note this week, the entire legislature participated in a civil discourse program, the first state to do so. In these times of combative, snarky politics, we legislators need to work together to craft good policy and debate the issues, not the person. Civil discourse is an art. It used to be called diplomacy.