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Boise, ID 83720-0081

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Boise Idaho Senator Michelle Stennett, Idaho State Senate Minority Leader

News Blog

2017 Legislative News, End of Session

Michelle Stennett

Hard working Idahoans tell us their top issues are education and the economy, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure. Through that lens, we made great stride with public education, skilled workforce development which equates to well-paid careers, state-wide transportation infrastructure needs, and policies that support our quality of life. With deep disappointment, healthcare, particularly the 78,000 uninsured gap population, remains unresolved with a few exceptions. Let's see how the 2017 legislative session shook out.

Education: All seven K-12 education budgets passed the legislature and are headed to the governor for signature into law. The new legislation we crafted included $61.9 million for the third year of the Career Ladder salary allocation plan for teachers. It also included a 3% increase for administrators and classified staff. Discretionary funding was increased by 4.1%.  Embedded in the discretionary funding is an increase specifically targeting rising health insurance costs. These budget items are amongst 20 recommendations from the Governor's Higher Education Task Force, a bipartisan work group aimed at improving Idaho's stagnant college completion rates.

Job Growth: Seeing a need to fill upcoming science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM) related jobs, Governor Otter created the Workforce Development Task Force which is charged with studying ways to improve Idaho's funding and delivery of training programs to meet growing employer demand for skilled workers. New job growth is projected at 138,000 but the looming mass-retirement of the baby boomer generation means we are looking at a workforce shortage of about 49,000 workers with necessary skills to fill those jobs. As one of two legislators serving on the task force, I am proud to be part of an ongoing effort to expand opportunities for Idaho's workforce.

Healthcare: We passed legislation to protect our more vulnerable populations, including a minor expansion of Medicaid services to cover children under the age of 18 with serious emotional disturbances with family incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty level. We also passed Senator Burgoyne's (D-Boise) ABLE Act bill, creating a part-time position to help people with disabilities and their families to set up out-of-state ABLE Accounts. Without ABLE accounts, people receiving disability benefits cannot save for critical quality of life measures like a wheelchair ramp, vital equipment maintenance, and dental care. This is a major quality of life improvement for people with disabilities and their families.

Threats: Idaho's rural communities have experienced significant threats to quality of life and the economy this year. Invasive species like the Quagga and Zebra Mussels remain a critical threat to hydroelectric dams, irrigation, native species, fisheries, and the recreation & tourism industry as well. I cosponsored legislation implementing recommendations from the Invasive Species Working Group that increased boat sticker fees for non-residents from $22 to $30. The gross collections will ensure our check stations have the resources needed to stay open longer. Harsh winters have created significant infrastructure maintenance costs for Idahoans. We passed a bill freeing up $52 million in emergency funds to local governments so they can address needs specific to their communities.

Transportation: The legislature passed a transportation funding bill that accepts $300 million in GARVEE bonding primarily designated for I-84 in Caldwell and Nampa, a 1% sales tax to pay for urban congestion mitigation, and diversion of lottery and cigarette tax revenues. Idaho still has over $564 million in outstanding GARVEE debt from 2005, which puts us nearly $1 billion in debt to the federal government. The bill does nothing for maintenance, little to help rural communities outside of Ada and Canyon counties, and puts future generations in debt to the federal government. Forty percent of some of the transportation revenue will help local governments with maintenance projects, but only for two years. While transportation desperately needed to be addressed this session, we should have pursued other fiscally responsible options.

Tax Relief: We also voted to eliminate the 6% sales tax on groceries. Idaho remains one ofthree states, with Alabama and Mississippi, that continues to tax groceries. Removing the grocery tax directly benefits working-class and middle-class families who proportionately spend a much higher percentage of their income on groceries. The measure also benefits small border town businesses that often see customers travel across the border for basic needs, resulting in negative impacts to Idaho's economy. The elimination of the sales tax on groceries would take almost $80 million out of the state revenue stream though, and as a result may receive the governor's veto.

Difficult Legislation that did not succeed: We were able to stop damaging anti-immigration legislation, voter suppression laws, and a resolution that would open The Constitution for revision. We must remember that an estimated 90% of our dairy industry and much of our agricultural sector relies on our immigrant workforce. Additionally, an Article V Constitutional Convention is a dangerous move as a convention cannot be limited to one singular item.

Perhaps one of the most important items worth discussing is what we didn't do this session: address the healthcare coverage gap with Medicaid expansion. Senate Democrats tried three separate times this session to expand Medicaid, but majority leadership refused to let it advance. In the wake of Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-Wisconsin) failed AHCA, the Affordable Care Act remains intact and there's still opportunity to act. Idaho has walked away from 350 million federal healthcare dollars in three years, and still 78,000 Idahoans currently live without healthcare coverage, 12% of whom are veterans.

We saw a growth in engaged citizens this year, and I thank you for being part of the process. We cannot do our jobs well without your involvement. If you wish to find additional details for any of these bills, you can find them at the Idaho Legislature's Bill Center. As always, I am proud to serve our district and the state of Idaho.