Idaho legislature: Minimum wage, Medicaid expansion Drama Continues

by Judy Ferro

I may seek the screenplay rights to the suspenseful drama now unfolding in the legislature.

It’s got comic relief. After voting to prohibit cities and counties from limiting the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam containers, Republicans were hopping to reconcile the proposed state dictate with their much-vaunted, though often ignored, support of local control.

Hey, States have pre-empted local control for decades—look at water quality and tax policies.

And —if we let cities make rules, we’ll have patchwork of policies.

(So Republicans are only pro-local control when it’s traditional and results in uniformity?)

A minor subplot adds both confusion and anguish. A bill to establish a maximum homeowner’s exemption and end the existing tie to the rise and fall of the average home price brought cries from assessors and realtors.

It will ultimately be a tax shift to the homeowners…

We didn’t even know this was coming. We’ve been blindsided.

But the focus then narrows to the life and death stuff—literally. Wednesday a crowd flooded four meeting rooms as a privileged dozen got to address extending Medicaid to 78,000 low income-Idahoans.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter spoke: “I think every Idahoan believes that when we see suffering, we have a moral obligation to do what we can to eliminate that.”

Jim Baugh of Disability Rights Idaho pleaded: “People with severe and persistent mental illness need more than primary care. They need specialty care, hospitalization, and they need coordinated care.”

Dr. Ted Epperly of Family Medicine Residency of Idaho confirmed: “This plan represents a tremendous opportunity to save Idaho taxpayer dollars…not to mention the greater reason to do this, which is saving and improving Idaho lives, [lives of those]…who fall into the coverage gap and, because of this, live sicker and die younger.”

Then a new hero takes center stage: Idaho Falls physician Kenneth Kress, director of critical care at Easter Idaho Regional Medical Center.

Speaking of Jenny Steinke’s death from asthma complications, Kress said, “I kept asking myself, how could this be? How…could I be seeing deaths and really damaging illness on a nearly daily basis as a result of failure to expand Medicaid…?”

“I could only come to one inescapable conclusion: that the Idaho Legislature is unfortunately responsible for those deaths. Our intransigence in failing to pass Medicaid expansion for the last three years has probably resulted in over 1,000 deaths in this state.”

He rejected the claim that Idahoans don’t want a federally-funded plan. “If that were true, I don’t think that we would see many in the Legislature accepting federal dollars for federal farm subsidies.” (A May 2011 article by Dustin Hurst revealed that Idaho legislators had received more than $4.3 million over 15 years.)

But the suspense does not end. Committee Chair Lee Heider said he would not call for a vote until the committee heard Gov. Otter’s healthcare proposal—which has yet to be submitted.

And, finally, an unexpected twist heightens the conflict. Rep. Mat Erpelding’s minimum wage proposal, last seen suffocating in Sen. Curt McKenzie’s desk, is alive and well as House Bill 400.

Yes, the House Ways and Means Committee, in spite of or because of McKenzie’s action, authorized printing of the minimum wage bill. Now another Nampan—Rep. Christie Perry—will decide whether this proposal, supported by 70% of Idahoans, will get a hearing.

Two bills, both supported by a majority of Idahoans, await high noon. Will either survive? The conclusion is yet to come.

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