...until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Monday, we celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His eloquent message of peace and justice rang throughout the statehouse. I hope we can maintain respectful debate in the face of new legislation restricting voter participation, to which Dr. King dedicated himself, and regulations that threaten the health of the public we were sent here to serve.
I am disturbed by the increasing restrictions placed on voter access over the past several years and was disappointed to see additional efforts to limit voter participation arise this week. The State Affairs committee voted to print a bill that would prohibit write-in candidates in the presidential primary and further restrict the timeline for changing party affiliation by one month. The Secretary of State's Office testified on the inconvenience of write-in candidates and that we have enough candidates already. This is voter suppression and limits public participation. My core belief is that voting is our most fundamental constitutional right and should be free, fair and accessible. This bill is restrictive of voter's rights and a violation of free speech.
Each legislative session has legislative committees review administrative rules written over the interim. The Resources & Environment committee analyzed rules written by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality regarding water quality. It is a bizarre practice, but fish consumption data is used to determine allowable pollution levels and water quality but Idaho's formula was deemed inadequate by the Environmental Protection Agency. The IDEQ conducted surveys and listened to public comment prior to revising this formula. While I commend their due diligence, I remain concerned that they settled on levels that put 1 out of 100k citizens at risk for cancer rather than the more aggressive target of 1 out of 1 million. What is the value of your health? It remains to be seen if these levels will be defensible against legal action by the EPA but protecting public health should be the first goal of pollution levels, especially for Idaho's native population which has higher fish consumption rates. For those who want more information on this complex issue, I refer you to this in-depth reporting from Idaho Public Television.
There was some very good news coming from our budget committee (JFAC) which recommended $29 million be returned to the state's general fund from the Catastrophic Health Care program (CAT fund). The money isn't needed to cover the state's portion of indigent medical care as a direct result of Idaho's state health care exchange. Kudos to Your Health Idaho which expanded access to affordable preventative care for 86k folks whose medical bills would previously have been paid by the inefficient joint county/state system.
We also learned that the state's first behavioral health crisis center in Idaho Falls saved the state over $750k in its first year of operation while treating nearly 2,400 clients. Treating patients in mental health or substance abuse crisis, who otherwise would have burdened local hospitals and law enforcement resources, is a proven success. A second clinic opened in Coeur d'Alene in December and the governor's request to fund the third of seven planned clinics is likely to win approval. The challenge will be in selecting the appropriate Southern Idaho community and we've already seen lobbying efforts by cities hoping to be chosen (though the decision rests with the Department of Health & Welfare). The need is great.
The Committee on Employee Compensation also met this week and followed the governor's lead in recommending a 3% merit-based pay raise for state employees as well as covering additional health care costs. We are losing public-sector workers to other states or private industry as a result of our low wages and I will vote for this increase when it comes to the floor.