Tax cuts, health care highlight session

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The Idaho State Capitol Building, pictured left, was host to a busy session, with everything from tax cuts to school safety to the state’s Medicaid gap all making an appearance. (Photo by KYLE PFANNENSTIEL)

The Idaho Legislature wound down to a close last week. Here are some key takeaways:

• Several proposals to deal with the state Medicaid gap surfaced. None passed.

• Lawmakers passed one of the biggest tax cuts in state history.

• A national debate on school safety made its way into the Legislature.

• K-12 science education standards referencing climate change survived a rocky journey.

Below, a deeper dive into the session.

A legislative stalemate

While 2018 marked another year of legislative inaction to close the Medicaid gap population, lawmakers made some progress in healthcare. They restored non-emergency dental care to Medicaid recipients after cutting it in 2011 during the recession. That proposal cleared the House narrowly and the Senate with only one fifth of the body opposing, but a proposal aiming to insure half of the gap population didn’t have the same good fortune; it died on a procedural vote.

The Idaho Healthcare Plan, one of departing Gov. Butch Otter’s proposals to reduce healthcare premiums and stabilize markets, suffered a hard death in the House — twice. It cleared committee on a 7-5 vote, only to be sent back from the floor due to lack of support. A few weeks later, Republican Rep. Christy Perry of Nampa made a surprise move to consider the bill, with it clearing committee on another 7-5 vote before again being sent back to committee — where it would die without a vote on the bill itself.

That measure would have directed the state to apply for two waivers through the federal government: one waiving the federal tax credit ban for income earners under 100 percent of the federal poverty limit and another moving people with “medically complex conditions” from the individual market to Medicaid. The first waiver was expected to insure 35,000 of the gap population’s 51,000 to 62,000 people. The second would’ve moved 2,500 to 3,500 people with what officials call “high cost conditions” to Medicaid, according to State Department of Health and Welfare projections.

Another proposal aimed at helping the gap population by covering family planning services for women who lack coverage in that area got to the House floor in early March. Its consideration was continually delayed until its sponsor unsuccessfully pushed to have it considered on one of the last legislative days. House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding’s motion died on a 14-55 vote, earning the Boise Democrat the “crow” — a tradition the House awards to a member for sponsoring a motion with the least amount of support.

The chopping block

Lawmakers approved one of the biggest tax cuts in state history — at nearly $100 million — only to slash another $25 million in taxes to appease criticism the first measure didn’t go far enough for families.

After all was said and done, Idaho conformed to the sweeping changes in federal tax code, including the removal of the dependent exemption, while cutting individual and business income taxes by .475 percent each. To offset conformity to the federal changes that are expected to increase taxes, namely the removal of the dependent exemption, the state created a child tax credit originally valued at $130. A bill late in the session increased it to $205. Some think the credit still doesn’t provide enough relief for families.

There were also proposals aimed at collecting more taxes, such as an approved bill to collect sales tax on internet purchases that’s estimated to bring in between $22 to $37 million.

Action to save schools and lives

In the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida school shooting, lawmakers considered multiple bills aimed at addressing student safety.

Only one of those bills, introduced at the beginning of March, appeared a potential product of the February shooting: House Bill 665. The legislation, now signed into law, makes it illegal to threaten a school off school grounds, including threats made on the internet. It also makes carrying weapons with the intention of using them to carry out such a threat a felony.

Law enforcement said in public testimony the bill allows them to take action to prevent attacks on schools. Under former law, law enforcement could only act if the threat made occured on school grounds.

Another approved bill encourages school districts to teach gun safety courses. While offering the courses has been legal, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ron Nate, said the law would clarify in code the ability of schools to do so. The Rexburg Republican said younger children would be taught to stay away from guns and seek out an adult. The courses could potentially prevent unintended injuries and deaths that can occur when children gain access to firearms.

Other bills addressed student safety on a more personal level. Idaho has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent years, the legislature has addressed the issue, founding the Suicide Prevention Program in 2016.

This year, the Legislature continued taking steps, funding mental health programs with $113.3 million in appropriations, a significant portion of which goes toward mental health care for children. A bill requiring all school personnel to take suicide prevention training also passed. However, an attempt to form a committee to study teen suicide and recommend ways to reduce the suicide rate in Idaho failed.

“Science Rules!” – Bill Nye

Years of debate on updating Idaho’s K-12 science education standards came to a close late February, after a Senate panel permanently adopted temporary standards with references to climate change.

Lawmakers still squabbled over adoption of the standard, though, as a House panel previously voted to partially reject them; the move ultimately failed because unanimity is required to modify or stop rules from going into place. Essentially, the Senate panel’s move overruled the House panel’s, leaving the science standards fully intact.

Kyle Pfannenstiel and Nina Rydalch covered the 2018 Idaho Legislature for the University of Idaho McClure Center for Public Policy Research.

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