Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Legislature busy with funding issues


   It’s only week two of the 2014 legislative session and already there is much news and activity to report.
     First and foremost, a video was released this week of Hailey’s own Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held in captivity since June 30, 2009. My prayers go to Bowe, who has suffered beyond our imaginings, that he be given support as he maintains his heroic endurance. My heart goes out to Jani and Bob Bergdahl, who are always in my thoughts and sympathies. My thanks go to Sen. Mike Crapo for his ongoing involvement in working to secure Bowe’s release. Please join me in encouraging our federal officials, from Sen. Crapo to Congressman Mike Simpson to the State Department, to continuously redouble efforts to engage Bowe’s captors and negotiate his safe release. Here is a link for contacting Idaho’s congressional delegation or you can call the U.S. Department of State at (703) 545-6700 and ask for Public Affairs.
     Now on to Statehouse business. In 2011, the Legislature passed HO260, which cut state support (and the federal matching dollars that compound state funds) for dental services for thousands of adult Medicaid patients. Not only was I joined by all my Democratic colleagues in debating and voting against this measure, our senators on the Senate Health and Welfare Committee issued a Minority Report which argued that this tactic would only serve to shift costs from the state to the counties and result in more expensive treatment. This week, the director of Idaho Health & Welfare reported to the Joint Finance-Appropriation Committee (JFAC) that the 2011 gambit backfired and dental-related emergency-room costs more than doubled. I will vote to restore these services if included in the H&W budget that comes before us in the coming months.
     I have filled these newsletters for years with my concerns about mental-health-care services and the Legislature’s ongoing failure to support such services through adequate state funding, only to leave counties holding the bag. Roger Christensen echoed these concerns in his presentation to the JFAC. Christensen oversees the Catastrophic Care Program (aka CAT fund), the state’s existing, and highly inefficient, system for covering the medical costs of the uninsured and/or indigent. There is a well-written article by The Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell that details the ballooning costs of maintaining this fund.  The Legislature needs to display wisdom and courage and debate the value of redesigning Medicaid this year so that health care, including mental health, can be better managed, costs reduced and patient care improved.
     After holding hearings and deliberations over three days last week, the Joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee (CEC) voted unanimously to increase compensation for state workers next year, a recommendation that was unanimously accepted by the JFAC. The CEC’s January 10th report to the Legislature recommends that state employees receive a 1 percent permanent salary increase and 1 percent in one-time merit bonuses for fiscal year 2015. Furthermore, the CEC supported the governor’s recommendation that nearly $13 million be earmarked to pay for the employer-provided share of increased costs tied to health benefits. I applaud the CEC’s recommendation and commend their resolve to meet again in 2015 so that state employee compensation evaluations can remain an ongoing priority.
     In a surprise move, $2 million was set aside for wolf control in the governor’s FY15 budget. Yes, $2 million, just for a single species and just for depleting wolf populations, not for livestock depredation compensation (that money comes from other sectors). If approved, this would set a precedent whereby the state could use General Fund dollars for the management of Idaho’s wildlife. And instead of funneling these monies through the Department of Fish & Game (where responsibility for wolf management traditionally resides), the $2 million would go through the Idaho Department of Agriculture, which raises concerns. Let me remind you that the General Fund runs state government; education, corrections, transportation, and so on. What could Idaho do with $2 million directed towards higher education, jobs programs, mental-health services or public health and safety?
     Speaking of public safety, the transport of mega-sized equipment by truck from Oregon through Idaho and Montana to the tar sands of northern Alberta, a distance of around 1,200 miles, goes right through Camas and Blaine counties on Highway 20. Understandably, there have been questions raised by residents in my district about the fees charged, public safety, the impact on highways and bridges, and accountability in case of accidents or environmental impacts.
     Mileage fees are calculated by the Idaho Transportation Department based on the weight of the actual material, how that weight is distributed over the axels and the number of wheels on the truck. ITD charged Omega Morgan approximately $7,500 in mileage fees to cover all expenses including engineering and administrative costs.  No extra permits were required and ITD did not require the company to post bonds to cover environmental impacts, believing that their permitting process already covers all potential problems. By comparison, Oregon charged Omega Morgan over $28,000 in permits and fees for 315 miles traveled and Montana charged around $5,000 in permits for 400 miles traveled and both our neighbors required the company to post bonds to cover any unforeseen damages. Was it enough for ITD to charge $7,500 to travel 475 miles through Idaho given that highway funding has fallen $262 million short of meeting annual operation, preservation and restoration needs? This remains to be seen.

    Michelle Stennett, a Democrat of Ketchum, serves in the Idaho Senate as the representative of District 26, which includes Blaine County.

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