District 26 lawmakers will devote their time in Boise this winter to implementing Medicaid expansion, rewriting the public school system’s funding formula, addressing prison overcrowding and promoting affordable housing.
That will create a hectic schedule in the three-month legislative session, which started Monday. It will spark debate on some of the largest—and most controversial—issues confronting the state, such as whether to pursue reform of criminal sentencing laws to ease overburdening the prison system.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said in an interview last week that she anticipates working with Republican leaders in the House and Senate, as well as new Gov. Brad Little, to shape those debates.
Democrats expanded their numbers in both chambers in the last election but still rank in the minority; the Republicans hold a 28-7 majority in the Senate and 56-14 majority in the House.
For the first time since 2012, District 26 has three Democratic representatives—Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Hailey, Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, and Stennett. District 26 includes Blaine, Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties.
Stennett and House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, welcomed Little’s inauguration and his State of the State address because he advocated for things Democrats have championed for years, they wrote in a joint statement.
“If Gov. Little is strong enough to walk the walk on what he talked about in the State of the State, we are valuable allies,” Stennett and Erpelding wrote. “After all, we’ve been fighting for this vision for a generation.”
Stennett warned that taxpayers have been uninformed about a new hit with the new tax structure that the Legislature passed to comply with federal tax reform. She said many are unaware that they’ve needed to redo their W-4 dependents form, which will hit couples filing jointly and large families the hardest.
“This tax reporting period is going to shock people because they didn’t know they had to redo their W-4 dependents form,” Stennett wrote in an email. “The public was seriously uninformed and there was little public education outreach by the state.”
Stennett said one of the first major tests will be implementation of the voter-approved Proposition 2, which will expand Medicaid in Idaho. Little has discussed his preference for putting a “spring in the safety net” of social programs to ensure they are encouraging recipients to continue to work to better their lives.
Stennett said it is vital for the Legislature and Little to implement the measure exactly as it was written, with no new requirements. She said many of the new recipients are already working, and a new requirement would be redundant.
She said attempts at doing so would amount to political posturing, and lawmakers must respect the will of the voters. Proposition 2 passed in 29 of 35 legislative districts, she said.
“There’s a pretty large mandate from Idahoans,” Stennett said. “Do what it says. Do what it is says in the proposition.”
Toone and Stennett expressed concern over the proposed rewrite of the funding formula, and how it would affect rural school districts.
Stennett said a proposed draft of the rewrite could mean a loss of tens of thousands of dollars in state funding to districts in Fairfield and in Bliss, which would be hard-pressed to absorb that kind of a loss. It was a smaller hit than a prior draft, which would have amounted to a $100,000 loss, she said. The Blaine County School District anticipates a loss of about $82,500 in state funding but supports the proposed rewrite.
“They don’t have that kind of money,” Stennett said of Fairfield and Bliss. “There are several districts around the state that will take the hit. They’re really trying to find that sweet spot and I’m not sure we’re there yet.”
Toone said more state funding is necessary to improve the school system and should accompany the formula rewrite.
“There are some questions about our rural schools,” Toone said. “Possibly that would mean two formulas. They’re heading in the right direction. There has to be more state funding to make it work.”
Stennett said the Legislature must examine the causes of prison overcrowding that is forcing the state to pay to send its inmates out of state, including mandatory minimum sentences.
She said rehabilitation programs such as drug courts and better mental-health-care access could keep more people out of prison. She said the Legislature has missed an opportunity to add funding into the Department of Health and Welfare during the robust economy, forcing it to pick services for the most egregious cases because those will get federal matching funds. Medicaid expansion will boost funding for mental-health care, she said.
“We do have to seriously look at who are our real criminals, and who could we put in a system and rehabilitate them,” Stennett said. “It costs a lot to incarcerate people. They are not thriving on the street. Something always fails because there aren’t enough resources.”
Toone and Davis received new assignments to key committees in the 2019 session. Toone will sit on the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee, which is in charge of approving the state budget, while Davis will sit on the House Health and Welfare Committee that will review implementation of Medicaid expansion.
Davis, in her first term as a state legislator, said she will be working on affordable housing, including advocating for a first-time home buyers savings account program that Little featured in his budget proposal to the Legislature. That aims to lower the cost of purchasing a home for first-time buyers.
Davis said she is considering introducing legislation to provide more local control to municipal and county governments. Toone will re-introduce her rural teacher loan-forgiveness legislation, and Stennett wants legislation to change the criminal penalties for starting wildfires and shooting explosive targets on state lands.
She said that financial penalties don’t make sense, but said offenders could receive community service as a punishment with the goal of working to restore lands that burned.