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Caroline Fan on June 8, 2009 - 11:43am
Idaho faced a historically bad budget projection, with projected consecutive negative growth in two years. This challenge resulted in the second longest session of all time, with the federal recovery act allowing significant opportunities for the legislature to use one-time funds to shore up the budget, even as reductions were made to education for the first time in state history. Without a doubt, this was one of the most contentious sessions in state record.
TAX, BUDGET AND RECOVERY: In a series of budget bills, the state reduced budgets for state agencies by $176 million (H 250) and tap dedicated stabilization and public education funds to balance the budget. The state also enacted:
- H 173 moves eligible retired state employees off of state insurance and onto Medicare once eligible and gives eligible state retirees $1,860 per year toward premiums for health insurance.
- S 1227 appropriates over $35 million from federal stimulus monies for public water and waste management systems, the Idaho Education Network and transportation project grants, and reduces state personnel costs by 5%.
- H 248 extends unemployment insurance benefits using alternative base periods , provides that certain part-time workers shall not be denied regular UI benefits, and provides for training extension benefits. H 335 defines when extended unemployment insurance benefits will be triggered (only when the federal government covers the full cost of UI benefits)
- Due to the education cuts, teachers will experience a one year freeze on experience-related salary increases (H 262).
Transportation: A third of Idaho's roads and bridges rated as being in poor or mediocre condition, according to a legislative audit released this year which said the state needed to spend an estimated $300 million annually to preserve its existing highway and bridge infrastructure by 2013. Republican Gov. "Butch" Otter vetoed 35 budget bills in an attempt to get his own party's members in the House to increase gasoline taxes to raise $174 million to pay for road repairs. Instead, the legislature voted for only a $50 million increase in transportation funding, and voted down six efforts to increase the gas tax. The legislature did enact H 338 to remove the ethanol exemption from fuel tax, resulting in about $16.4 million of revenues for road maintenance, and S 1186 which approved bonding authority for up to $82 million of highway transportation projects. The state is also receiving almost $44 miilion in forest and road maintenance stimulus money.
Health Care: Budget pressures resulted in the enactment of H 123 to contain Medicaid costs and reduce reimbursements to providers and benefits to Medicaid recipients. In addition, the state enacted the following health care reforms:
- H 192 creates the Idaho Health Carrier External Review Act which allows individuals already receiving health insurance the right to an independent review of a health carrier’s decision to deny a claim on the grounds that the service is not medically necessary or is investigational.
- HB 108 allows children between the ages of 21 and 25 to remain on their parents' health insurance as long as they are still considered dependents.
- In order to address the chronic shortage of physicians in the state, HJM 7 resolves to find federal funding to help establish a medical school program and SJM 101 urges Congress to provide additional funding for medical residency programs in Idaho.
Pay Day Loans: Passed unanimously, S 1151 provides that payday loans made by unlicensed payday lenders are void and provides for a private right of action to recover borrowers' monies. It also provides the Department of Finance the ability to send cease and desist orders and to seek restitution for consumers.
Mortgage Reforms: H 169 passed unanimously and repeals existing law relating to residential mortgages and preserves existing regulatory oversight language and incorporates the requirements of the federal Safe and Fair Enforcement Mortgage Licensing Act of 2008, including criminal background checks for mortgage brokers, the licensing and registration mandates for all mortgage loan originators, and the establishment of a state mortgage recovery fund which would reimburse individuals for damages caused by mortgage brokers, lenders, or loan originators. The bill also empowers the Director of the Department of Finance to investigate and rescind licenses granted under the chapter.
Reproductive Rights: Fortunately, a bill aimed at allowing providers of pharmaceutical care to refuse to provide abortion or contraceptive services died in the Senate after passing in the House.
Death Penalty: H 107 eliminates the death penalty by firing squad, making Idaho the last state in the nation to do away with this antiquated option.
Child Care: Under S 1112, child-care operators who care for seven or more unrelated children must be licensed, and those with four or more must get criminal background checks. Current law does not require child-care facilities to have a license unless they care for 13 or more children.
Election Reform: Along with administrative changes consolidating election dates and providing funds for counties to buy new voting equipment (H 372), the state enacted S 1184 to reform legislative redistricting following a census to require that, whenever possible, counties, district boundaries and local voting precincts remain intact; while preventing past redistricting commissioners from serving on future commissions.
Environmental: H 7 was enacted to allow the Public Utilities Commission to designate priority transmission lines that improve Idaho's transmission capacity which will assist in bringing more renewable power sources on line.
Progressive Defeats and Missed Opportunities
- Immigration: S 1110 was passed without the Governor's signature and requires immigrants to show identification in order to receive public benefits and also requires states agencies toverify immigrant status through the SAVE program. In better news, the E-Verify bill which would have required businesses to use the federal program to check the immigration status of employees or face possible forfeiture of state, county or city licesnses for employing undocumented immigrants did not pass.
- Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform: The legislature also missed opportunities to charge lobbyists with felonies for threatening or withholding contributions to legislators and executive officials, and to require candidates to file a financial disclosure statement publicizing income sources of $10,000 and real estate holdings of more than $5000, other than a personal residence.