Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of profiles featuring candidates for Legislative District 26 seats.
Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, has served District 26 for just two years in the House of Representatives, but has already seen a decision from the Republican majority that she considers shameful.
Toone is running for re-election this fall for her second term in the House. She is a retired educator who runs a family farm and cattle ranch in Camas and Gooding counties.
Toone said the Legislature’s inaction on resolving the Medicaid gap in Idaho has been awful. Idaho has an estimated 51,000 to 62,000 people who fall into the gap; they’re low-income residents who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid currently, but too little to get subsidized care under the Affordable Care Act.
The gap population has been a source of impassioned debate in the Legislature for years, but that debate has yet to result in action. Prior to the 2018 session, Gov. Butch Otter announced a push for the state to get two federal waivers that would have addressed about half of the residents in the gap population.
One waiver sought to move approximately 3,000 residents with complex and expensive medical treatment off of the state’s insurance exchange and onto Medicaid. That was expected to decrease the costs of premiums for plans sold on the exchange, while another waiver sought to qualify about 35,000 working adults for subsidized care.
The plan needed the Legislature’s approval, but the bill, HB 464, did not pass. It passed the House Health and Welfare Committee but did not make it on to the House floor for a vote.
Lawmakers voted twice to send the bill back to committee, where it ultimately died. In the second vote, Toone and Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, voted against sending the bill back to committee.
“I think that’s awful,” Toone said. “We should have had a vote two years ago. The Legislature voted no. We can’t get it off the floor. Shame on them for not representing Idaho.”
A group called Reclaim Idaho organized a signature gathering campaign that qualified a ballot measure, Proposition 2, that will put the Medicaid expansion issue before voters in November. If passed by voters, Medicaid would be expanded to all residents in the gap population.
It does this by expanding eligibility to those residents who are under 65 years of age and have income at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. For a single adult, the federal poverty level in 2018 is $12,140. For a household of two people, it’s $16,460. For a household of three, it’s $20,780.
According to a report from the actuarial firm Milliman, the state would have to pay $105 million from fiscal 2020 to 2030 to implement the expansion. It would receive $4.69 billion in federal funding over that 10-year period.
“There’s not the huge price tag,” Toone said. “It’s about our neighbors and our friends. If the Idaho citizens can get the signatures to do it, thank goodness they have the ability to do it.”
Asked about Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s push to get federal permission to allow insurers to sell plans in Idaho that don’t comply with aspects of the Affordable Care Act, Toone said she doesn’t expect the private market to provide a solution to the number of uninsured residents.
“Have you seen it happen?” Toone asked. “I haven’t seen the private market step up and solve the problem of uninsured Idahoans. We need to start working toward a solution. All I’ve seen are premiums go up and outpacing what Idahoans can afford.”
Shifting to education, Toone cited the state Board of Education’s teacher pipeline report from 2017. The report found that demand for teachers is growing, but “one-third of the teachers who become certified in Idaho each year are not employed in Idaho as teachers.
“This critical finding must be further studied,” the report concluded. “Are these potential Idaho teachers using their teaching certificates in border states? Are they choosing other professions within the state? If it can be determined why approximately 700 new teachers choose not to (or are unable to) teach in Idaho public schools every year, state policymakers would have critical information to shape future education policy.”
The report found that the state loses about 10 percent of its teachers through attrition each year, and 15 percent of new teachers do not return after their first year.
Toone said those findings must be examined further. In 2019, the Legislature will consider funding the final year of a five-year, $250 million plan to boost teacher salaries through the state’s career-ladder system.
“How come we’re losing teachers?” Toone asked. “We have to look at the recommendations. Salaries are a big part of that.”
Toone said one of her top priorities if re-elected is to reintroduce her rural teacher loan forgiveness bill. She has introduced the bill in the last two sessions, but it has not passed. The bill would provide $3,000 annually to as many as 500 teachers in rural school districts, to help pay off their student loans.
Idaho has approximately 19,000 certified teachers and counselors, and half of them work in rural districts, according to the bill’s statement of purpose.
Toone said the Legislature should also work with the Idaho Workforce Development Council on creating partnerships for apprentice programs, particularly in rural schools. That could help students not pursuing a four-year college degree to gain skills in electrical, plumbing or culinary fields.
She said the Legislature should continue to expand internet access to school districts throughout Idaho, and improve access to more kindergarten while boosting third-grade literacy rates.
“We need to start not thinking about having high school students in a seat all the time,” Toone said. “Every child learns differently. We have aspects of Idaho public schools that are performing well. We have a good education system. We have national merit scholars that come out of Idaho. We can do better.”