The 2011 session, my seventh, was one the most difficult one that I can remember. And most members and legislative observers agree.
Not that there weren’t bills passed and changes made. Not that the budget debates didn’t come to a conclusion with a FY 2012 financial plan that appears balanced (or at least without deficit). But the difficulty was more in the realm of what the legislature is for, how it should function, the power of the Majority and rights of the Minority, and ideology vs. pragmatic solutions.
I will not list the bills passed and rejected. That is available in summary at the legislative website. A more comprehensive listing of the bills is in the legislative bill center.
There were several bills, however, that did occupy a great deal of the effort of the 2011 Legislature. The first of those are the bills comprising Superintendent Luna’s “Students come First” initiative. This proposal consisted of three major bills and several amendments or “trailer” bills. The popular testimony, thousands of people in the Statehouse, hundreds of emails, were largely against the bills. In fact, there is enough discontent with this action of the Legislature that there is an active attempt to repeal the bills by popular vote (referendum). How that resolves is yet to be seen.
Additional education bills included an appropriation that reduced funding by $48 M (added to the decrease in General Fund money of $128 M last year). Changes in school board/teacher association relationships, Mastery advancement and a youth challenge school authorization also passed. Five bills on charter schools were presented, including one which failed that would have required the State to guarantee loans for private charters.
A second major area of debate was on the Medicaid and Health and Welfare programs. During the depths of the recession, the Federal government increased its share of financial support for the Medicaid program (healthcare and support services for poor and disabled) from covering 70% of the cost to providing 80% of the funding. That augmented FMAP (Federal Medical Assistance Percentage) rate reverted to normal at the end of 2011, and rather than replace the shortfall with state money, the legislature chose to cut programs. The original proposal to cut $40M in state funds (and forego the federal match) would have reduced services by almost $160M and severely harmed many Idaho residents. The cuts are still very significant, $35 M State money and $108M total service reduction, and will have significant adverse effects not only on the patients and their families, but on the communities as they struggle with how to care for their poor aged and disabled citizens.
Near the end of the session, a bill was presented and passed that changed how Idaho does primary elections. Beginning in 2012, voters will be asked to publically choose a party, and if they do not, may be unable to vote in partisan primary elections. This is in response to a lawsuit from the Idaho Republican Party. I expect that this will make the more vocal and active wings of each party able to direct the candidate, and likely will make the general election choices more polarized. I am afraid that ideology purity, not pragmatism and the common good, will more often define election choices.
Not that ideology and posturing weren’t a prominent part of this session. Bills to allow weapons on campus, assert a state right to invalidate federal law, forbid Idaho action in the health reform arena were all part of 2011. I suspect that we will be spending a fair amount of time and money in court responding to legal challenges. I already know that a few of the bills limiting organized labor activities are headed to federal court, as is the latest abortion limitation and part of the education plan. It was frustrating when we acknowledge that there is not enough money for the services we should be supporting and then obligate our Attorney General to spend on these cases.
The budget was less contentious than expected, but I believe done poorly. There were significant reductions in Education, Higher Education, health services, and smaller reductions in almost all other agencies. The revenue (tax receipts) estimated for 2011 was low, and it looks like we may have almost $75 million more than budgeted. The 2012 budget , calling for drastic reductions will also likely underestimate revenues. So in the end, I expect a surplus. Surplus is good, but only if you aren’t spending more because of deferring needed expenses. Pay me now or pay me later, as the oil ad goes.