BOISE • Idaho’s legislative session doesn’t start until Monday, but already, Magic Valley lawmakers have been working on bills.
And there’s a lot to discuss. With proposed changes to state education reforms, the implementation of a controversial federal health care program, budget worries and more, Idaho’s lawmakers have a busy session ahead of them.
The 2012 Idaho Legislature kicks off Monday with Gov. Butch Otter’s 1 p.m. State of the State and budget addresses.
Here are four major issues that Magic Valley legislators are working on.
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Health Care Exchange
This session, legislators will consider setting up a state-based health care exchange, a one-stop, online marketplace that would provide health insurance options for individuals and small businesses.
Setting up exchanges is one of the requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. If individual states don’t take necessary actions to set up exchanges by Jan. 2013, the federal government will do so on their behalf.
It puts Idaho legislators in a tough spot, said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. If they work for a public exchange to fulfill the requirements, they could be accused of supporting Obamacare — not a popular law among conservative Idahoans. If they don’t enact one, they risk the federal government coming in and an exchange that might not work best for the state.
Cameron and Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, are working on a bill that establishes the exchange through a public-private partnership.
“We’re going to do it the way we think Idaho should do it,” he said.
You might have heard about a projected surplus inIdaho’s budget, but don’t get too excited, warns Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
“We keep trying to tell people that surplus is when you’ve paid all your bills and you have money left over,”he said. And we’re not there yet.
If there is a surplus at the June 30 end of the fiscal year, Cameron put public education, public safety, health issues and economic growth at the top of the priority list.
“How that gets passed out will depend on how much money is there and what needs are there,”he said. But four of the last five months’ revenue have come in under projection, he said.
JFAC co-chairwoman Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, expressed concern about where the Legislature had cut in the last two years.
“You assumed you were saving money,” she said, like when the state cut funding for adult mental health services. But those costs might show up elsewhere, like in emergency rooms or in the judicial system.
Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, is working on legislation to make aquifer recharge a bigger priority in Idaho.
It’s a major issue for Magic Valley, where water is precious and agriculture is king. During high-water years, canal companies can encourage the return of water to the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer through injection wells or by spreading water over the land in ditches. Without those efforts, most of that surplus water flows down the Snake River. Refilling the Lake Erie-sized aquifer with the excess water wouldn’t infringe on anyone’s water rights, Bedke emphasized.
The state water board has money for infrastructure improvements required to refill the aquifer. Annual operating costs would be covered by deficiency warrants, where expenditures are authorized without a specific appropriation until the cost is known — possibly capped at $485,000.
“That amount of investment puts a lot of water in the ground,”he said. And that, he said, is good news for all Magic Valley water users.
In 2011, the Legislature passed public schools chief Tom Luna’s Students Come First education reform plan, a comprehensive overhaul that affected technology in classrooms, teacher salaries, collective bargaining negotiations and more.
Some of the changes are still being rolled out, while others have yet to take effect. Already, school districts have given feedback to the Legislature, said Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, and Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding.
“There’s going to have to be some tweaks,”Pence said.
Some provisions of the new laws have been hard to implement, Block said. For example, part of Senate Bill 1184 states that students who complete graduation requirements by the beginning of their senior year are eligible to take dual-credit classes from Idaho colleges at the state’s expense.
The problem, Block said, is students can’t currently complete graduation requirements until finishing at least part of their senior year, meaning few Idaho students are eligible for those dual credits.