by Judy Ferro
Many progressive issues are alive and well in Idaho this month.
Although Governor Otter’s endorsement of the report by the Medicaid Redesign Workgroup was weak, it was far better than the flat “no” in last year’s State-of-the-State Address. The difference gives hope to the many advocates for the 104,000 Idahoans who are not eligible for health insurance assistance under either Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act.
A newly released poll commissioned by Idaho Politics Weekly indicates that 67 percent of Idahoans want the words “sexual orientation: and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act. Either legislators are finally listening or they wanted to avoid the conflicts which led to 200 or so arrests last year; the House Ways and Means Committee has announced a late January public hearing for “Add the Words.” After nine years of effort, advocates will have a forum with legislators.
And the Governor is recommending a 7.4% increase in funds for public schools. Last year Otter spoke highly of the Educational Task Force’s efforts and then recommended minimal funding. Fortunately, legislators found more money for schools.
The Governor’s budget support is a substantial step, but critics will debate his priorities. Operational funds for schools—the versatile money that pays for everything from textbooks to utility bills—would still be $27.5 million less than the 2009 budget.
And Senator Jeff Siddoway, chair of the Local Government and Taxation Committee, is loudly objecting to increasing annual salaries for beginning teachers to only $32,800 a year. The Republican from the Idaho Falls area says starting teacher salaries should be increased to $40,000 now, not at some distant point in the future. Starting salaries over $43,000 in nearby Wyoming make it hard for the school districts he represents to retain teachers.
Otter’s State-of-the-State address also included a number of other recommendations Democrats can support: aiding local communities in infrastructure improvements, rebuilding bridges, streamlining the State Tax Commission, and taxing Internet purchases at the time of sale. Less appreciated is his request for a five-year reduction in the upper tax bracket from 7.4 to 6.9%.
On Wednesday, Idaho Democratic legislators gave an address to the state including both approval and prodding for Otter’s stands.
On the economy, they applauded Otter’s conversion to supporting workforce training and higher-paying jobs. They outlined the next steps as increasing the minimum wage and establishing Small Business Development Centers. Eloquently, they requested that tax decreases for special interests be balanced by cuts in special interest exemptions so “workers, families, school children and communities” aren’t left footing the bill.
The Democrats also appreciated that the Governor was finally recognizing the importance of a serious investment in education. They thanked Idaho educators who have “done much with limited resources” and pointed out the need “to keep focusing on keeping good educators serving our kids.” They expressed support for doing what would best serve the kids, whether it be early childhood education, guidance counselors, or revision of the funding formula.
Then the Democratic leaders hit on an area absent in Otter’s speech: accountability and honesty in government. “One, we need to revise how contracts are developed, vetted and monitored. Two, when there is malfeasance, there needs to be an investigation and correction, and prosecution if criminal offenses occur. Three, we need to review our contracts to ensure that our citizens get what they paid for!”
They also asked for more financial disclosure, prohibition of “lobbying the executive branch during contract development,” and an end to retired state employees returning overnight to lobby former co-workers.
The strong message from progressives on education, fairness, and jobs is being heard. We can hope that it will also bring real change this legislative session—or the next, or the one after that.