Voter Initiatives, Medicaid, and Hemp

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The end is drawing near for the 2019 Idaho state legislative session, but we also appear to be at a draw on a few prominent issues. Below is the status of three topics as of mid-day Friday, March 29. I qualify the report due to the rapid pace at the end of the session.

Senate Bill 1159, a proposal to change requirements for placing a voter initiative on the ballot, has been heavily contested. Currently, to place an initiative on the ballot, organizers must gather signatures from 18 of our 35 legislative districts. The signature count must equal six percent of registered voters in those 18 districts. Signature gathering is limited to a period of 18 months.

S1159 proposes signatures from ten percent of registered voters in 32 of 35 legislative districts within a six-month timeframe. There is now a House bill, H296, which would modify the requirements of S1159. Under H296, the signature requirement would be ten percent of registered voters in 24 of 35 districts within a nine-month timeframe.

S1159 has passed out of the Senate and House and is headed to the governorís office. H296 passed out of the House. It will come to the Senate next.

Iíve heard from folks at home across the political spectrum that we are not interested in limiting the citizensí ability to initiate legislation. Iíve voted accordingly.

Medicaid expansion has several bills associated with it. Only the funding bill is necessary for implementation of Medicaid expansion. The funding bill, S1171, is sitting in the House waiting for resolution on the question of whether there will be any modifications to the standard Medicaid expansion plan as laid out in the Affordable Care Act. There have been a few bills proposing modifications.

The most contentious possible modification is the addition of a work requirement for a portion of the newly eligible Medicaid recipients. As proposed, of the estimated 91,000 people who might sign up under Medicaid expansion, about 13,000 would need to work or participate in an educational or training program for 20 hours per week. The thought being that able-bodied adults should be working or improving themselves if they want to receive healthcare under the Medicaid program. The downside is the cost of implementing and administering a work, education, or training program. Additionally, based on experience from the work requirements associated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, some people will choose not to participate in the work, education, or training program. As a result, there is the potential for a group of uninsured who will still rely on the emergency room instead of preventive healthcare. When folks end up in the emergency room and arenít able to pay, the cost goes back to the taxpayers via the county indigent fund and the state catastrophic fund. The debate continues next week.

Hemp production may be legalized in Idaho to conform with new federal regulations. The federal government legalized industrial hemp production as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. We are now obliged to create a state regulatory system. If we opt not to control the industry ourselves, the federal government will provide a regulatory program. Hemp is a strain of the cannabis sativa plant just the same as marijuana is a strain of the cannabis sativa plant. The legal distinction, made in the Farm Bill, is that hemp must have a THC content less than 0.3 percent. Any cannabis sativa with a THC content greater than 0.3 percent is illegal. THC is a psychoactive compound naturally occurring in cannabis.

Proponents hope that industrial hemp will become a commercially viable product. It will, however, be a heavily regulated industry. Weíre already spending a quarter million dollars this year just for three pieces of ISP lab test equipment to measure THC content. The challenge for law enforcement is distinguishing between two strains of a plant that look the same and which cannot be differentiated by a K-9 unit.

The legislature should adjourn this coming week. Watch for town hall meetings if youíre interested in a post-session summary or have input youíd like to provide.

Sen. Jim Woodward represents District 1, Bonner and Boundary counties, in the Idaho Senate. He can be reached at

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