COVID rules and medical marijuana engage legislature

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee of the Idaho legislature started cranking out bills this week. That means that legislators will now stop dreaming up crazy bills and settle down to getting things wrapped up.  

I admit it didn’t work that way last year–nor the year before–but we can hope.

JFAC has outlined the spending plan for about 40% of the $900 million in Federal disaster aid allotted in December for Idaho public health, child welfare, schools and higher education. The committee also approved $50 million of this year’s surplus for water management projects and another $3 million for state park upgrades. 

Yet, action to limit a governor’s options during emergencies is still central. HB135 is the latest effort to ban emergency rulings affecting jobs, churches, or existing laws. This bill would not only require legislative approval to extend emergency restrictions after 60 days, it would limit emergency declarations to 365 days.   

Elizabeth Criner, a lobbyist for the J.R. Simplot Co. pointed out that Idaho had four regional emergency declarations in 2017 that, under the new law, would have required the legislature to convene in April, May, August and early October to extend regulations. That’s a big extra expenditure.   

There are a number of other pandemic-related bills being considered. SB1060 and HB33 would require restrictions by public health districts to end after 30 days unless approved by county or city officials. HB 67 and HB 68 would give the trustees of  K-12 schools and community colleges, not health districts, the power to decide rules and procedures during epidemics. These last two bills have passed the House along with HCR 5 which seeks to nullify Gov. Brad Little’s current order limiting public gatherings to 50 persons.

But interest in the medical marijuana issue is growing.  This session started with the introduction of a resolution (SJR 101) to insert Idaho’s current drug laws into the state constitution. It’s passed the Senate with a 2/3rds vote, 24-11. 

Supporters raised the fear that out-of-state interests would come in, promote legalizing drugs, and ruin our state. Idaho had, after all, seen an initiative to legalize medical marijuana that might have been on the 2020 ballot if Gov. Little’s COVID restrictions hadn’t made signature gathering impossible. 

And last week a group named Kind Idaho did get approval for a new initiative said to be identical to the earlier one (https://www.facebook.com/kindidaho).    

It’s a real possibility that both issues will appear on Nov. 2022 ballots in Idaho. I can’t imagine anything other than a presidential election boosting voter turnout more. So we might get a chance to find out where Idahoans really stand.

It was no surprise, however, to see a new bill designed to end the power of anyone but the very rich to get an initiative on our ballot. SB 1110 would require signatures from 6% of the voters in all 35 legislative districts rather than just 18. The argument is that having a voice in getting initiatives on the ballot counts as more than getting to vote on the issue.   

And now there is a bill in the House (HB 108) to legalize medical marijuana. It was written by a cancer-ridden Air Force veteran, Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, and introduced by representatives Ilana Rubel (D) and Mike Kingsley (R). Stricter than the initiative, it limits prescriptions to listed ailments and to 2 grams of THC per month unless a patient is terminal. 

If legislators really want to stop the initiative, they could support the bill which, sponsors say, is the strictest in the nation. But that’s not likely to happen in the only legislature in the country still pondering whether to legalize hemp.   

Republican legislature fails Idaho voters

KTVB reported Friday that nearly 40,000 Idahoans signed up for Medicaid expansion in the first two weeks of enrollment. 

On January 1 they–and thousands still to sign up–will have assistance in meeting healthcare expenses.

For five years Idahoans who care pressed legislators to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor. Then they got an initiative on the ballot and saw 61 percent of Idaho voters support expansion last November.  

Then, Republican legislators who never saw unnecessary deaths as a reason to act, passed limits to coverage–which have not yet been approved by Federal administrators–and made initiatives harder to pass–which Gov. Brad Little vetoed.

They did make it clear, however, that they don’t respect the voters’ opinions.  

Right now, Idaho citizens who care are gathering signatures for initiatives to raise the minimum wage, to increase school funding, and to legalize medical marijuana. 

And every petition, every knocked door, every signature, cries out that legislators are failing us. 

It’s been 10 years since Congress set the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.  Since then, 31 states have adopted higher rates. Equivalent wage today would be $8.70 an hour (CPI Inflation Calculator). 

A 2015 poll by the Dan Jones’ firm found that 70 percent of Idahoans supported raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour. 

Yet, a bill cosponsored by Idaho’s Democratic legislators in 2017 died without discussion or hearings.  

The current initiative, circulated by Idahoans for a Fair Wage, would raise the wage to $8.75 on June 1, 2021 and, with annual increases, to $12 in 2024. 

The group makes a simple argument: the living wage in Idaho is almost $15 an hour, yet 40 percent of Idahoans earn less than $12 an hour.  

 Idaho Sen. Jim Rice (R-10) dismisses that reasoning. “It’s poor economic policy to do minimum wages. It’s a type of price control.”

Price control–like Idaho exerts on electricity, natural gas, and water companies (and the Federal government fails to exert on insulin)–is bad.  No need to rethink because Idaho workers are stuck in poverty.

Reclaim Idaho decided not to dismantle its organization of volunteers after getting Medicaid expansion enacted, but choose a new goal–adequate funding of education.   

In 2010, after the Great Recession hit, Idaho Republicans made the most drastic cuts in education funding in the nation so they could lower business taxes significantly. In recent years, some have approved additional funding, but not enough to keep class sizes reasonable or retain qualified teachers.

Reclaim Idaho is asking voters to increase the corporate tax to eight percent and put a surtax on earnings over $250,000 in order to send school districts an additional $600 per student. 

Similarly, Republican leaders and Idahoans are at odds over medical marijuana. 

 Idaho is one of only three states where CBD oil or hemp containing any amount of THC is illegal. Yet a poll by Idaho Politics Weekly indicated that 73 percent of Idahoans support legalizing medical marijuana. 

So now the Idaho Cannabis Coalition  is circulating a 27-page petition detailing the establishment of a registry of patients, caregivers, growers and agents who could use or possess medical marijuana.  

Each of the three initiative petitions requires that signatures of 55,057 legally registered voters–including six percent of the voters in 18 legislative districts–be submitted to Idaho Elections by May 1.  

If each volunteer got 100 signatures–and 85 of those were valid–the task would require over 2,000 volunteers.  

May all 2,000 then turn their efforts into defeating legislators who don’t listen and don’t care.