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The Idaho Way: Idaho Republican legislators reveal early agenda of fear and loathing

Idaho Statesman 1/27/2023 Scott McIntosh, The Idaho Statesman
Gov. Brad Little provides his list of top priorities for the Idaho Legislature with his annual State of the State speech, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at the Statehouse in Boise. © Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS Gov. Brad Little provides his list of top priorities for the Idaho Legislature with his annual State of the State speech, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at the Statehouse in Boise.

By Scott McIntosh, opinion editor

The Idaho Way is a weekly roundup of opinions, commentary and letters to the editor to encourage conversation on topics important to Idahoans. If you like this newsletter, forward to a friend, and they can sign up here.

If Idaho’s Republican legislators show their priorities by what they address in the opening weeks of the session, the message is clear: They’re scared, and they’re against a lot of things.

They’re scared of gay people, teenagers, drag shows, home invaders, unisex bathrooms and immigrants.

So far, Idaho Republican legislators have introduced bills that would:

  • prevent the city of Boise from sponsoring the Boise Pride Festival
  • criminally punish someone filing a false claim of child abuse
  • prohibit the state from requiring contractors to provide restroom facilities accommodations for transgender residents
  • tell cities which laws to prioritize for enforcement
  • expand stand-your-ground laws, making it easier to kill someone in your house
  • make sure parents know they don’t have to get their kids immunized to go to daycare
  • prevent so-called “sanctuary cities”
  • prohibit colleges and university officials from banning guns on campuses
  • ban state health officials from recommending the COVID-19 vaccine or taking other public health safety measures.
Ammon Bundy’s campaign had planned to hold a rally in Cassia Park. The city said no. © Sarah Miller | Idaho Statesman/Idaho Statesman/TNS Ammon Bundy’s campaign had planned to hold a rally in Cassia Park. The city said no.

Two legislators, Reps. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, and Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, apparently are even afraid of children, banning them from testifying in committee unless invited.

And here we thought the big problems facing Idaho were things like skyrocketing residential property taxes, deteriorating school buildings, disappearing farmland, housing Idaho prisoners out of state, affordable housing, homelessness, things like that.

Read our full editorial here on what these priorities tell us about some Idaho Republican legislators.

A final stack of Reclaim Idaho petition signatures is delivered to the Ada County Elections Headquarters in Boise Monday, May 2, 2022. © Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS A final stack of Reclaim Idaho petition signatures is delivered to the Ada County Elections Headquarters in Boise Monday, May 2, 2022.

Idaho gets an ‘F’ in tobacco survey

It’s been 18 years since I smoked my last cigarette, and I still have dreams about smoking.

I loved everything about smoking for the 10 years I was a smoker. I loved smoking with a cup of coffee, after eating a good meal, having a drink or just sitting contemplatively on my back deck.

Juliet Charron, Administrator of the Idaho Dept. of Health & Welfare Division of Medicaid, presents a summary of what Medicaid expansion has covered since starting in 2020, the program’s budget and estimated costs moving into fiscal year 2024. Charron was presenting to a joint session of the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho Statehouse. © Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS Juliet Charron, Administrator of the Idaho Dept. of Health & Welfare Division of Medicaid, presents a summary of what Medicaid expansion has covered since starting in 2020, the program’s budget and estimated costs moving into fiscal year 2024. Charron was presenting to a joint session of the House and Senate Health & Welfare committees, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho Statehouse.

I wish I had never started smoking. I know how hard it is to quit.

Unfortunately, Idaho doesn’t receive good grades when it comes to policies to prevent and reduce tobacco use. For state funding for tobacco prevention programs, the level of state tobacco taxes and for ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products, Idaho received F grades in the latest report from the American Lung Association.

Read my full column here on Idaho’s ranking and why it matters.

Medicaid expansion

Medicaid expansion is turning out to be a good deal for Idaho.

It’s estimated that Medicaid expansion will save taxpayers about $10 million next year.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is requesting about $67 million in state general fund dollars associated with Medicaid expansion.

Without Medicaid expansion, though, costs to state and local taxpayers would be about $77.7 million because of costs associated with such things as more expensive emergency room visits, mental health and drug use disorders, and costs to the state catastrophic health fund and local indigent care funds.

Further, hospitals reported spending $42 million less on charity care and $61 million less on bad debt, according to Juliet Charron, administrator of the division of Medicaid with the Department of Health and Welfare, who this week updated state legislators on Medicaid expansion.

Read our full editorial here on why legislators are right to question costs but should celebrate its success.

Medicaid and rural hospitals

Idaho lawmakers are closing in on a self-imposed deadline of Jan. 31 to re-evaluate Medicaid expansion in Idaho, which voters overwhelmingly passed by initiative.

If lawmakers care about the fate of rural hospitals — or about the patients those hospitals serve — they should leave the program unaltered, writes Idaho Statesman opinion writer Bryan Clark.

Medicaid expansion covered the working poor, people making between 100% and 138% of the federal poverty level. Those people had fallen into an unplanned gap in the Affordable Care Act, making too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidies for private insurance.

That coverage has changed the landscape for rural health care in Idaho, Brad Huerta told Clark. Huerta is the CEO of Lost River Medical Center, a rural critical access hospital with clinics in Arco and Mackay.

Read Clark’s full column here on how Medicaid expansion has been a boon to rural hospitals.

Initiative initiative

Right now, Idahoans who want to go outside the legislature to change policy have to get signatures from 6% of registered voters in the state, along with 6% in at least 18 of 35 legislative districts.

It’s a massive hurdle that only a few have cleared in recent years.

A constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Doug Okuniewicz this week would make the hurdle practically impossible to clear. Okuniewicz has proposed to turn a law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Idaho Supreme Court in 2021 into a constitutional amendment.

In other words, if the Supreme Court rules something is unconstitutional, the obvious answer is to change the constitution. So thinks the Idaho Legislature, no doubt emboldened by voters’ recent decision to allow it to call itself back into session.

Read our full editorial here on why Idaho voters shouldn’t choose to give away more power.

Threats of violence

There is a widespread expectation of political violence — terrorism — in the Mountain West, as a Frank Church Institute poll demonstrated last year.

Since that poll was conducted, tensions have not abated much. There have been fewer protests outside of officials’ homes since the end of COVID restrictions, but the far-right has moved to other venues.

Recently, Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell, made hysterical claims, shouted down board members and failed to conduct himself according to rules of order at a meeting of the Caldwell school board. The Caldwell school board again had to delay any consideration of the policy because it needed time to coordinate the meeting with police. Trakel behaved like a bully, abused his authority and was rewarded for it with an interview on Fox News.

And last week on a far-right website, Ammon Bundy issued a thinly veiled threat of violence, addressed directly to Idaho State Police, the lieutenant governor, prosecutors, the CEO of St. Luke’s, a judge, a local attorney, the governor and the head of the Department of Administration.

Read our full editorial here on the need to put an end to such bullying and threats.

The kids are all right

Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, banned testimony in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee from people under 18 except by his invitation. When asked, Skaug stated that the opinions of high school students on legislative matters are inferior to those of adults who might sign up for testimony, according to a guest opinion piece this week signed by more than two dozen local students.

“As student leaders across the state, we are appalled by Chairman Skaug’s rejection of the democratic traditions that our country was built upon,” according to the guest opinion piece. “The ability for all constituents to have a say in the legislative process, regardless of age, is essential for a functioning democracy. As citizens, constituents, taxpayers, and the future leaders of Idaho, our voices deserve to be heard.”

The kids are all right. Read their guest opinion piece here for proof.

Idaho Launch scholarship

Gov. Brad Little’s proposed universal scholarship program — dubbed “Idaho Launch” — could be one of the most important education initiatives this legislative session, writes Bryan Clark.

Little toured the state last week promoting the program, which would offer an $8,500 scholarship to any graduating high school student who decides to attend an Idaho university or community college. It could prove to be a powerful engine for economic mobility and long-term economic growth.

“It will have a significant impact on our students,” Rick Aman, president of College of Eastern Idaho in Idaho Falls, told Clark after Little’s stop there. “From a community college perspective, that is literally tuition and fees for two years. … They’ll leave with no debt.”

Read Bryan’s full column here on why it could be a game changer — and a life changer for some.

Capitol Letters

Now that the Idaho Legislature is back in session, Idaho Statesman reporter Ryan Suppe and politics editor Hayat Norimine have you covered, keeping you updated on each day’s happenings and what to expect for the upcoming day.

Plus, I throw in our astute politics observations and opinions on a daily basis.

To sign up to receive Capitol Letters, click here.

I’m listening

Send me your story ideas, news tips, questions, comments, or anything else on your mind. You can reach me via email at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com.

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What you’re saying

This week, we received letters to the editor on Rep. Bruce Skaug’s ban on teenage testimony and state Sen. Chris Trakel’s bad behavior at Caldwell board meeting. You can read these and more letters by clicking here.

You can submit a letter to the editor or guest opinion by clicking here.

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