By Sen. Jim Woodward
Dear friends and neighbors of Legislative District 1,
The first regular session of Idaho’s 65th Legislature is complete. Spanning 95 days, the session was 15 days longer than scheduled. The extra duration resulted from somewhat contentious struggles over Medicaid expansion, voter initiative requirements and to a lesser extent, setting the framework for hemp as an agricultural product in Idaho.
Medicaid coverage has been expanded to cover all individuals earning below 138% of the federal poverty level. The Legislature did add a few conditions to the expansion which include a requirement that the federal/state funds match remain at 90%/10%, that the expansion occurs only if the Affordable Care Act does not lose its constitutional legality, and that Idaho request a couple of waivers to the standard program. One waiver, if approved, will allow those currently on the Idaho healthcare exchange to remain on the exchange instead of forcing them onto Medicaid. These are the folks earning between 100% to 138% of the federal poverty level. Another waiver, if approved, will require Medicaid participants to show 20 hours per week of work, education or training, or any combination of the three. If the waivers are not approved by the federal government, the expansion continues per current ACA guidelines.
A bill changing the requirements to place a voter initiative on the ballot was brought forth early in the legislative session. One proposed change increased the number of ballot petition signatures from 6% of registered voters to 10% of registered voters. The second proposed change increased the number of legislative districts in which signature gathering occurs from 18 of 35 districts to 32 of 35 districts. The amount of time to gather signatures was proposed to decrease from 18 months to six months. Also proposed was a requirement that all ballot initiatives have a fiscal statement attached showing an estimated cost of the initiative and a potential funding source. The proposals were packaged together in one bill, Senate Bill 1159, and successfully run through the legislature. While there may be room for improvement in our ballot initiative process, I felt the combination of proposed changes was too restrictive. I voted no on the bill. There was significant feedback from all over the state that people did not want to restrict our ability to run citizen initiatives. As a result, Governor Little did veto S1159. Our ballot initiative process is unchanged.
As of late last year, hemp is no longer a controlled substance under federal regulations. Hemp is a strain of cannabis sativa, just as marijuana is a strain of cannabis sativa. By federal law, hemp is defined as cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% THC. THC is the psychoactive compound in cannabis sativa. Under current Idaho law, there is no distinction between hemp and marijuana, only between something containing no THC or something that does contain THC. Legislation was brought forth this session to bring Idaho’s laws in line with federal regulations regarding hemp. The details of the discussion and debate are lengthy. The end result was that no legislation passed. For now, anything with THC in it is still illegal in Idaho. Since most hemp contains trace amounts of THC, hemp is illegal in Idaho.
Our state K-12 educational system saw a number of advances in the 2019 legislative session. Starting teacher salary will increase over the next two years to $40,000 per year. When competing with communities along the Washington and Oregon border, Idaho has struggled to attract qualified teachers because our starting pay is substantially lower. The fifth year of the ‘Career Ladder’ was also funded which will provide salary increases for existing teachers. Early reading skills are a building block in anyone’s education. The governor placed special emphasis on K-3 reading programs by asking for and receiving an additional $13 million in funding for the programs. Advanced Opportunities also saw a boost in funding. The Advanced Opportunities program pays tuition for high school students to take college courses, either online or at local facilities. Every high school student in Idaho is authorized $4000 worth of college courses. As a follow on to high school opportunities, funding was also increased for the Opportunity Scholarship program. Idaho students attending an Idaho college or university are eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship.
After completing my first legislative session as your state senator, I’ve come to a few conclusions:
1.) I do believe we are positioned well as a state. We continue to operate with a balanced budget, as mandated by our constitution. We have nearly restored our financial reserve funds to pre-2008 recession levels. The economy is running strong and stable. With ever increasing tax revenues, now is the time to prepare for the next rainy day.
2.) I believe our biggest challenge moving forward is growth. Idaho is a desirable place to live. We continue to see strong growth across the state. To maintain our standard of living will require increased infrastructure which comes at a cost. Currently, we are not keeping up with maintenance of the transportation system we already have in place. I will focus on increasing efficiency in our spending to keep up with growth as an alternative to increasing spending.
3.) The legislative process is alive and well. With 70 members in the Idaho House of Representatives and 35 in the Senate, there is an abundance of experience and knowledge. Each member is unique and has his or her own life as background for decision-making. There are differences of opinion, but I can tell you that the actual process is often much less dramatic or emotional than what is portrayed in media reports.
I appreciate the trust you have placed in me. I will continue to work in our best interests as citizens of Legislative District 1 and as Idahoans. Please feel free to reach out at any time with questions or concerns.
State Senator, Legislative District 1
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