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Posts published in “Schmidt”

Pay the piper

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The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) will propose a $11M expenditure to the legislature this session. The goal is to provide mental health and drug abuse services to recently released convicts who are back in the community. The idea is that such an investment ($1500/year) might keep some offenders from returning to prison ($30,000/year). About a third of Idaho offenders released to the community return to prison within three years.

This seems like a good investment in our community. I have little faith the legislature will see it as such. And here's why. This cost to the Idaho taxpayer would be nothing if the legislature had considered expanding Medicaid eligibility. And such a consideration is toxic for the legislature, even though most Idaho residents consider it reasonable.

The cost benefit analysis of Medicaid eligibility expansion under the Affordable Care Act was looked at carefully four years ago by a work group requested by Governor Otter. The analysis showed that enrolling the uninsured would save Idaho taxpayers but did not include any savings for this group of recently incarcerated. They found such calculations too difficult. But with prompts from the Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee and the Judicial Council, the IDHW looked at this as a source of savings to Idaho taxpayers and brings this recommendation. But they also brought PCAP last year (an expensive compromise) when the legislature had refused to consider eligibility expansion.

Both are attempts to get the legislature to solve the problem of access to health care to prevent expensive costs. And I predict the new proposal will die the simple death (as PCAP did) that the legislature wishes would come to all the uninsured, if only such deaths were as cheap as our current ignorance. But the piper will demand payment.

The legislature (and the Freedom Foundation) will see the IDHW proposal as a back door for Medicaid Expansion, which should have been done four years ago and now is dead thanks to Trump and Ryan. Idaho citizens have lost $2B in support thanks to our legislature and lack of leadership on any level. So is the ACA dead? What would be their solution? We have engaged the piper; people expect health insurance. Can Trump and Ryan roll that back? Is that their plan? I haven't caught the tweet.

I am thankful IDHW has made such a proposal. Should the legislature have the courage to burden the taxpayers with such a program, now, at least we can count the dollars we are spending, so we can know how much we could have saved.

This is a tough issue. Providing appropriate care and paying for it are responsible choices we should all be willing to consider. I wish our leaders had the courage.

The rural economic back story

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Senator Keough is right, small towns in Idaho need help.

Dialing in the details of the Tax Reimbursement Incentive (TRI) to suit smaller marketplaces is an appropriate move. This graph of population in the North Central region of Idaho gives you a sense of what small towns face. There are seven regions in Idaho; subtract South West (Boise) and then you can multiply this effect by six.

But I want to tell you the history of this legislation, so maybe you can understand why Idaho government is not functioning "at the speed of business" as former Idaho Director of Commerce, Jeff Sayer used to say was his goal.

The TRI started as a brainchild of Roy Lacey (D Pocatello) and Donna Pence (D Gooding) when they were in the Idaho House. The idea was to give companies who come to Idaho and start a business that pays more than the average salary a tax incentive that they could collect later if their promised development pans out. He initially proposed it to promote value added jobs in agriculture in 2012 and 2013. It got good reception from Commerce, the Governor’s office and some committee members, but the House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Wayne Hoffman came out against it as “picking winners and losers”. It got killed.

Still, Roy worked all summer of 2013 with Sayer and rewrote the idea to include all businesses, based on a Utah model already in place. But Roy and Donna knew the slant of the field they were playing on.

So Sayer took the bill, with the Democrats blessing, to Moyle for the 2014 session and he agreed to sponsor. And it passed! Wayne Hoffman still hates it. But this shows that the Idaho Capitol is not quite the “arena of ideas” Speaker Bedke wants it to be. It seems that whose idea it is, or maybe the party affiliation of the person with the idea has influence.

Shame on us that our representatives are not there to do the peoples work, but instead find party affiliation as a prejudice to the common good. It may be no accident that both Donna and Roy retired from the legislature this last year. I question whether the partisan nature of the legislature serves Idaho.

Is this reflected in small towns? I have heard many constituents in these close communities express reluctance to acknowledge minority party affiliation. I can’t blame them. I’ve lived in this culture. And I’ve also seen minority party members dismiss any idea coming from the other side.

Such stances almost seem tribal. I hope we don’t start hacking each other’s arms off. It’s bad enough that we kill good ideas.

Idaho’s economy to come

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As EORAC (The Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Joint legislative Committee) starts it’s meeting for this year, I am reminded of a comment by a fellow member a few years back.

EORAC is tasked with recommending a revenue projection to JFAC so a budget can be set for the coming year. Idaho’s Constitution, like many states, mandates that government may spend no more each year than it takes in. Idaho tax revenue is of course mainly dependent on sales tax and income tax. Property taxes (also about a third of the Idaho tax burden) mainly go to local governments. Income and consumer activity is quite dependent on the economic climate, so the committee listens to many experts discuss their weather predictions for the coming year.

When we heard from Idaho Department of Labor in 2014, House Speaker Scott Bedke seemed surprised by Idaho low wages. At that time Idaho had the highest percent of minimum wage earners (now we are 49th), and the lowest average wage in the country (still 50th). The Speaker asked that the numbers be repeated to the legislators for emphasis and suggested we consider our policy actions to address this. He’s right; our state leaders should understand this predicament.

But it’s not news. This has been a long time coming.

This paper provides a good analysis of each sector. Interestingly, when I have had this discussion with Republicans who will talk to me about this, they point to 1980’s as when environmental pressures hurt logging and mining. But those Idaho jobs actually pay above the national average and have for the last 30 years. Health care workers have driven this decline the most; their pay has lagged and the sector has grown.

So why hasn’t the market solved this for us? You’d think businesses would want to come to a place where the workers get paid less, then as demand for workers increases, the pay would also. Idaho has had some ups and downs, but overall the 30 year trend is swirling the drain. State Impact Idaho tried to get people’s attention about this issue 4 years ago. They did a great job, but it sure didn’t fire up any voter outrage.

The consequences we see of this trend are that bright young folks are leaving the state for better employment opportunities elsewhere and older, gray haired, fixed income folks are coming in to take advantage of the low pay. Such a demographic change will have a long influence on the economy, and the politics.

A further consequence, since we started talking about revenue, is that since people make less, the state collects less revenue to pay for schools and other services. If incomes rose, we could actually lower the tax rate and still get enough revenue to do the work the state should be doing.

So what should policy makers do? First, I would wonder if any see this as a problem. My sense was that Speaker Bedke did, but I sure didn’t hear others join him. When I can get Republicans to talk about this they usually deflect the low wages to a comparably low cost of living in Idaho.

But they are wrong again. Idaho’s cost of living is about 30th nationally, while wages are 50th.

I have heard one lawmaker dismiss low wages as a problem. He also considered the goal of economic growth, especially for rural areas a mistake. “People like things the way they are; otherwise they wouldn’t be livin’ here. Why try to change things?”

As I sit in the distant back seat and watch EORAC hear testimony about Idaho’s economic forecast, I wonder who’s speaking up for the workers in Idaho? Do they have a seat on this bus?

Loyalty in excess

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Loyalty is a fine quality, but in excess it fills political graveyards. - Neil Kinnock

It has been encouraging to get all the emails, texts, condolence cards, and even phone calls after my election loss. There have been many hands on my shoulder as I'm out at holiday events, "So sorry you lost." I'm sure my opponent got as many congratulatory ones, at least I hope he did. It was also something to ponder that I got so many messages (email, texts, letters and phone calls) from majority party legislators, active and retired, expressing disappointment in my loss. But at the same time the majority party spent so much effort to unseat me. Indeed, my Senate colleagues contributed significantly to my opponent.

I was not surprised; they always have, though not always as much. It didn't hurt so much before because I won, though honestly, I never won by much. My margin has never been more than 800 votes, close to one percent. This is a swing district (There are only three of the 35 legislative districts in this state with a delegation that isn’t all one party.) and that's where the parties in this unbalanced state play the game. I am trying to understand the meaning of party loyalty for those of us who have been elected as opposed to our supposed goal of working for the common good. Let me know if this is whining; I hate whining.

The above donation is just from my Senate Republican colleagues. All told, the Republican party  and seated legislators directly contributed over 20% of my opponents fundraising, not including the independent money (?$10,000) they spent. That's no small effort. One retired Republican legislator told me, "Dan, they just have so much money and there are so few contested races, and so few swing districts, they have to spend it somewhere." Such doesn’t seem a conservative value, does it?

I can remember a neighbor down on Wildhorse River that told me “the only good coyote was a dead coyote”. He raised sheep, so I understood his sentiment. I imagine the Republican Party in Idaho might say the same about Idaho Democrats. And indeed, Idaho Democrats may have the reciprocal view. Does this partisanship serve our state?

One could discount the public and private sentiments expressed by my colleagues as just polite condolence, not heart felt. One North Idaho legislator actually argued with me when I said the legislature will do just fine without me. He said he respectfully disagreed; he thought my contribution was going to be sorely missed. I politely did not confront him with this, from his local Republican committee:

So I'm wondering, maybe they did not really consider me worth keeping around, despite their words. Instead the value of having a Republican, any Republican (no matter the character or skills or politics) was worth getting rid of me. That makes me feel pretty special, like Wile E Coyote was special to the Roadrunner. But it sure brings out the cynicism.

If I were to go this route, that is, to decide their words were not genuine, just polite pandering like cocktail party compliments, then the work I did for six years to build relationships and integrity in the legislature is not worth dry spit. And such effort isn't worth any time for those involved in the legislative process. I find such a bitter conclusion abhorrent, but possible, given the reality of our current political landscape, both in the state Capitol, and maybe in the populace in general. Should we all just play the partisan game, winning and losing? I am guilty of wanting more from all of us.

We could cynically say: it's just politics. And the party brand is how politics is played: my guy wins, your guy loses. Even more insidious, my Republican colleagues could be trying to distance themselves from the actions of their party. That is, their party makes decisions they would not on their own. So then why are we affiliated? If you look carefully at the beautiful Idaho Capitol, you will find Majority Party and Minority Party caucus rooms build into the structure on opposite sides of the chambers. Was this just a reflection of an historical assumption? Or does this partisan duality serve our state?

I’m working on these answers. Let me know what you think.

(photo/Debra Schmidt)