Idaho legislature fails the big issues

Five years ago, writing as a mythical Democratic governor, I wrote a brief State-of-the-State address. Now seems a good time to check up on five actions that seemed most important then.   

One did get accomplished–Medicaid expansion. It took $1.7 million, 60,000 signatures, and 365,000 votes–plus some court actions to get rid of restrictions the legislature added–but we did get 100,000 Idahoans insured through the program. No doubt, having care for chronic ailments helped many of them survive Covid-19. 

Initiative petitions are now circulating for two or the other issues.   

Idaho continues to fund schools at half the nation’s average rate per student. Legislators expect teachers to manage class sizes totally unacceptable in most of the nation and then blame those teachers when they don’t like the outcome. They’ve funded additional money for pet projects, but ignored the need to bring class sizes down and to provide basic materials.

 Reclaim Idaho is circulating petitions for the Quality Education Act which proposes an additional $300 million annually for Idaho schools.  It allows school districts to decide among 10 possible uses, including reducing class sizes, full-day kindergarten, career technical education, etc.  

Last year the legislature made continuing income tax cuts of $160 million for the wealthiest of us. This year Republican leadership plans to push for an additional $200 million.

Given the opportunity to spend a $360 million annual surplus on public schools, these leaders are instead choosing to benefit corporations and the wealthiest. Idahoans who believe in education need to help the scores of volunteers devoting hours and days to gathering signatures.  

Fair Wage Idaho is circulating petitions to raise the Idaho minimum wage incrementally to $13 ($10 for tipped servers) by July 1, 2026. Thirty states have higher minimum wages than Idaho’s $7.25; Republicans control the legislatures in at least 10 of these. (Ironically, the Federal minimum wage Idaho farmers pay for temporary H-2A workers from other countries is $14.55.)  

The legislature did act, though feebly, on a fourth issue.  Faced with a $260 million annual funding gap for roads and bridges, the 2017 legislature allotted $20 million per year from the general fund. Last year, with a $600 million surplus, the legislature failed to pass a bill that would have added $68 million annually.  Fortunately, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in November includes $2 billion earmarked for Idaho roads and bridges.

The fifth issue, “add the words,” would have extended civil rights protection to persons of all gender identities. Instead, the legislature has passed anti-LGBT laws that have cost the state hefty legal fees. 

These are not the only issues where legislators have failed Idahoans. They’ve reneged on promises to end the sales tax on groceries. They removed provisions for the property tax exemption to increase as property values increased. The additional $25,000 exempted last year would have been $75,000 under previous law. 

The failure to fund child protective services adequately has made headlines recently. Our usual high turnover in social workers has become a hemorrhage. 

Headlines have also featured the hundreds of Idaho prisoners housed out of state. We’re sending the best-behaved prisoners far from their families to profit prisons without training opportunities. Idaho’s recidivism rate is one of the highest.  

Next Monday we will again start paying $30,000 a day to watch many of our legislators promote personal political ambitions. They’ill attack public schools, seek attention on divisive issues like abortion and guns, and invite expensive lawsuits by passing bills they know are unconstitutional. 

After all, they want to ensure reelection next fall.  

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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