by Judy Ferro

March Madness—it’s not just about basketball any more.

For the second time this month, presidential candidates and celebrities are visiting Idaho! Michelle Kwan in Idaho yesterday. Bernie Sanders today. Democratic caucuses tomorrow!

But that’s not all. At the state level, we’ve had the earliest candidate sign-up dates ever, and a hard push to adjourn the legislature by March 24. (More than half the House seats–37 out of 70—have primary contests coming up in less than nine weeks.)

To some extent it’s business-as-usual at high speed. The push is on for “hot button” issues that appeal to Republican voters; allowing state takeover of federally held lands, using the Bible in public schools, making abortion more difficult, expanding gun rights, and giving parents more weapons against “liberal” education.

The Joint Finance Committee has approved $400,000 for killing wolves even though nearly $300,000 remains in the wolf-control fund after 72 were killed last year. Another $200,000 has been appropriated to pay for expenses from lawsuits like the ones the Attorney General predicts will result from okaying the Bible as a classroom resource while ignoring other religious texts.

But this year Democratic legislators seem more energetic and less discouraged than they usually are by session’s end. They are getting creative in pushing their issues; if they can’t get their bills passed, they will at least force a recorded vote so Idahoans will know how each legislator stands.

Twice Democrats voted against bills that they really supported. Their message? With the Republican Party split, the moderate majority needs Democratic votes to get bills passed, and, in return, they need to show some respect for the minority’s issues. (The budget bill that was defeated is due to come up again.)

Democrats in the House forced a vote to retrieve the bill to raise the minimum wage from the Ways and Means Committee. The effort failed, but now every House Republican is on record as opposing a living wage for thousands of Idahoans

The Democrats’ greatest efforts have gone toward getting health insurance for the 78,000 Idahoans “in the gap,” e.g. they make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to get subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats have reasons to hope for success. Some Republican legislators were notably moved by testimony at last month’s hearing. They understand that inaction is condemning an average of one Idahoan a day to die due to lack of health insurance.

Last week House Democrats videotaped testimony of several Idahoans who did not get to testify because time ran at the earlier hearing. Tapes were to be delivered to members of the House Health and Welfare Committee over the weekend.

Senator Dan Schmidt took things one step farther. He called a press conference to announce that he giving up the state-funded health insurance provided to all legislators. He doesn’t feel it’s right for him—and, by implication, anyone?– to accept such a benefit while denying insurance to others.

So today Republican legislators will present a new health insurance bill, one they hope members of their party members support, to the House Health and Welfare Committee. It is believed this bill will use Federal Medicaid money to buy insurance through private companies. Like the other Republican bills this year, it will offer less for the money involved, but it will avoid the “Obamacare” label.

Four days is hardly enough time to get a bill through both the House and the Senate, but who knows what can happen when Republicans and Democrats work together?

Published by Judy Ferro

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

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