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Posts published in June 2018

Idaho Weekly Briefing – June 4

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for June 4. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

Education uncertainty continues this week, as Boise State University gets an interim, not permanent, president, and thew University of Idaho sees leadership changes there met with a local silence. Brigham Young University-Idaho, however, while quietly rolling along, posted new enrollment records.

With the necessary signatures collected to place an initiative before voters this fall, supporters of a measure that would provide health care to tens of thousands of Idahoans began preparing for the next phase of their campaign Thursday.

The United States and Canada began negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty regime in Washington, D.C. on May 29-30. Acting Assistant Secretary Francisco Palmieri welcomed U.S. and Canadian negotiating teams and opened the first session of talks.

The State Board of Education on June 1 appointed Dr. Martin Schimpf as interim president of Boise State University.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management today signed the Record of Decision for the Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat Project.

The Idaho Transportation Department will host the first public meeting as part of Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s recently formed Executive Committee focused on the study of autonomous and connected vehicles in Idaho.

Official spring semester enrollment totals for both on-campus and online students at Brigham Young University-Idaho show continued growth.

Strong results from a bi-annual citizen survey drove a rare 4.5-star rating for the city of Boise for its “quality of governance and vision.” Seattle-based Northwest Research Group conducted the survey of Boise residents between March 14 and April 8. In its report of survey results, Northwest said its 5-Star rating system for municipalities, which is used to rate more than 1,000 cities nationwide, is designed to make a perfect score very difficult to achieve and “very few have even achieved a 4.5-star rating.”

A dozen innovative water-saving technologies received a financial boost today from the federal government and water agencies across the Southwest with the announcement of this year’s Innovative Conservation Program grant recipients.

PHOTO Idaho Falls school officials are looking at trying again after a $110 million bond issue for major upgrades at two high schools – revisions to Skyline High School are pictured here – failed at the polls last month. (photo/Visit Idaho)
 

Something for those in the gap

schmidt

Dear Brad,

I hear you say that you favor doing “something” for Idahoans in “The Gap”. These folks make less money than people who can go on the Idaho health insurance exchange (Your Health Idaho, YHI) so they can’t afford health insurance. You presided over the bitter debates in the Idaho Senate about establishing YHI. Governor Otter bravely fought for this and continues to support it; do you? You know the current system where we pay for the uninsured through catastrophic care, but then liens are filed and they are bankrupt. Some even die for postponing their care. It’s costing Idaho Counties tens of millions and The Idaho General Fund as much or more. I want to know your plan for getting health coverage for our working poor citizens, since you seem reluctant to support the Medicaid Expansion Initiative.

I know you know the numbers. You know how much Medicaid Expansion would mean to rural hospitals and clinics. So explain to me why more expensive half-measures like PCAP or this year’s double waiver plans make sense to you. You supported these plans, but you say you didn’t support the Medicaid Expansion Initiative, which covers more people and costs Idaho taxpayers less. You didn’t sign the petition.

I’ve read your support for returning to the High Risk Pool model, where we tax all health insurance premiums to pay for those who can’t get health insurance. Before the ACA when preexisting conditions were a reason to be denied health insurance, they seemed a reasonable solution. The goal was to get everybody covered by a health insurance plan, as it should be. Explain to me why this is a better option than Medicaid Expansion.

Maybe you aren’t willing to fight the well-funded and very vocal far-right Freedom Foundation who believes only “free market” health care solutions should be considered. That YHI fight in the legislature sure was bitter. But Idahoans flocked to the exchange to buy health insurance. And county indigent and state Catastrophic costs plummeted. It was a hard fight, but I think it was worth it.

Governor Otter has appointed at least three “advisory panels” on health care since 2007 and all have made recommendations to promote universal health insurance coverage in Idaho. He also had two “work groups” who recommended Medicaid coverage be expanded. So Governor Otter has had plenty of hand-picked groups give him advice neither he nor the legislature was willing to act on. Is this your plan too?

To be fair, Governor Otter has followed the advice of one group to promote medical education in Idaho. He supported it with budget recommendations. He also followed the advice to work on changing health care delivery through promoting the Primary Care Medical Home Model for Idaho. And Idaho is in the middle of rolling out a State Health Innovation Plan, designed to reform delivery and payment methods for the state. If “Medicaid is broken”, as I have heard in the Idaho statehouse, let’s work to fix it.

Director Cameron’s innovative suggestion to move high-cost patients with certain diagnoses onto Medicaid to lower private insurance costs shows Otter’s appointees can think outside the box.

It looks like Idaho could be poised for some dramatic and innovative health care changes. States could lead with health care innovation. I believe expanding Medicaid eligibility fits well with these. Why don’t you? Let me know.
 

Shifts of market and region

stapiluslogo1

Forty years ago one of the big ongoing news stories, and one of the big serious issues, facing the Northwest was the impending shortage of energy supply. We just weren’t producing enough electricity, we were told, to satisfy the growth needs of the region.

All sorts of things happened in those years in an attempt to deal with this problem, not least the massive nuclear power building in Washington state (remember the wonderfully-acronymed WPPSS?) that resulted in economic collapse and massive debt.

What never did happen was this: The Northwest never did run out of power.

Idaho, Washington and Oregon have kept on growing, economically and demographically, in the years since, and adequate supply of electric power has never been a significant problem. Neither, for that matter, has cost; juice has been about as inexpensive in the region through these years as it has anywhere in the country.

One of several reasons for that has been the existence, for 80 years so far, of the Bonneville Power Administration. Headquartered at Portland, the BPA has the job of taking the immense amount of electric power generated by the federal dams in the Columbia River system and selling it to customers, mainly regional and local utilities. Idaho utilities get some of this power, and the state benefits more broadly from the way the cheap hydropower has helped keep electric rates low.

Political threats to BPA’s existence have surfaced from time to time - there’s been a rumbling from the Trump Administration most recently - but the most immediate and maybe most intractable threat right now is economic. It comes not from anyone trying to do it in, but from broader conditions.

These are laid out in a fascinating short report by Idaho economist Anthony Jones and activist Linwood Laughy (he was involved in the Highway 12 megaload battle), who with several others began looking into the economic changes surrounding electric power in the Northwest. Their report (you can see it at http://rmecon.com/examples/BonnevillePower%20May%202018.pdf) concluded that BPA could be facing extinction unless something dramatic changes.

They’re not alone in issuing warnings. Elliott Mainzer, BPA’s current administrator, warned in March, “We’ve taken huge hits in the secondary revenues market just like every other hydro provider up here, with cheap gas, low load growth, and the oversupply conditions. It’s been a bloodbath for folks in the wholesale market. I’m not in a panic mode, but I am in a very, very significant sense of urgency mode.”

That concisely lays out some of the issues. Oversupply - of electric power - has become real, as solar, wind and other power sources have become major factors in the Northwest. As supply has grown, prices have fallen. The big drop came around 2008 and 2009, when “the open market price of power dropped from $90 to $25.” It has not much rebounded in the years since. The declining need for additional power already has reduced the use of coal-fired plants in the region.

BPA has been protected somewhat by long-term contracts with many of its utilities, but some of those utilities are agitating for lower prices from other sources, and negotiations are likely to be fierce as contracts come up for renewal. Traditionally, BPA has made money by selling excess power to California, but California also is seeing a massive increase in renewable energy: It is being flooded with additional power as well. Meantime, BPA has a number of costs, from environmental requirements to pension funds to compensation for dam maintenance, that it cannot reduce. It is being squeezed, hard.

That started about a decade ago, and there’s an easy way to measure it. In 2008 BPA had financial reserves of almost $1 billion; now, only about $5 million of that is left, the rest of it gone to pay for costs when income hasn’t kept up.

The Northwest energy world has been turned on its head since those energy-shortage days of 40 years ago. It may look a lot different a decade from now.