Inside Politics: Idaho’s Best Legislation No One Knows About
Inside Politics

Inside Politics: Idaho’s Best Legislation No One Knows About

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Idaho Capitol Building

The Idaho State Capitol building on Jan. 8, 2018, in Boise.

Idaho’s state legislature did very little to distinguish itself in 2020. In fact, we’ll probably get sued again for more harmful legislation Gov. Little just signed into law. However, one bill co-sponsored by two Twin Falls lawmakers could bring much-needed relief to hundreds of Idaho families who face financial ruin in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The legislation didn’t make any headlines because the subject of bankruptcy exemptions doesn’t exactly make for scintillating copy. But, this new law couldn’t have come at a better time.

Before we delve into the new legislation, a few things about bankruptcy. First, thousands of Idahoans file for bankruptcy each year. I know. I am a former bankruptcy trustee who administered thousands of cases over a period of seven years. Chances are, you know someone who has filed. Second, bankruptcy debtors tend not to be “dead beats.” Case law makes it clear the vast majority of debtors are “honest but unfortunate.” I can attest to this. While not every bankruptcy debtor is pure of motive, the crooks are rare. As a bankruptcy trustee during the financial crisis, I saw thousands of people who held on for as long as they could before filing. Job losses and foreclosures proved to be too much for them in the end — especially for those with children. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to file for bankruptcy. But, eventually, financial reality catches up with pride.

The main purpose of filing for bankruptcy is getting a “fresh start.” This is the actual legal term. In other words, debtors who file for bankruptcy get relief from their creditors — and most of their debts — so they can start over again on their financial future. Bankruptcy has provided this relief (in one form or another) for over 120 years in our country. Bankruptcy “exemptions” work hand-in-hand with this ideal. Exemptions allow debtors to shield certain property (equity in their home, a vehicle, household goods, etc.) from the bankruptcy trustee so they can facilitate their “fresh start.” After all, if you had to give up EVERYTHING you own in bankruptcy, what’s the point?

These facts are important because jobless claims are spiking in Idaho and across the country. Who could be more “honest but unfortunate” than someone who loses their jobs as a result of a worldwide pandemic? Covid-19 was not the impetus for the new legislation we’re going to talk about (rising home prices were), but given the fallout from the virus, the timing of the new law could not be better.

House Bill 464 (co-sponsored by Reps. Laurie Lickley, Linda Hartgen and Bryan Zollinger and signed into law by Gov. Little last week) raises the exemptions on several key types of property: the homestead (your home), tools of the trade, vehicles, and the so-called “wild card.”

So, what are “exemptions?” Basically, they protect the equity you have in certain types of property. For instance, House Bill 464 raises the “homestead” exemption from $100,000 to $175,000. This does NOT mean you will lose your home in bankruptcy if it is worth more than $175,000. All the exemption protects is equity. In other words, if you have a $300,000 house with $125,000 left on the mortgage, your equity is protected by the new exemption. If, on the other hand, you have a $300,000 home free-and-clear, you could be in trouble.

The same goes for the new, higher, vehicle exemption. House Bill 464 raises the exemption from $7,000 to $10,000. Again, this protects equity. I can say from experience that very few people have $10,000 equity in a car or truck. As such, the vast majority of bankruptcy debtors will keep at least one vehicle so long as they maintain the payments.

In my opinion, the best feature of this new law is the drastically increased exemption in “tools of the trade” from $2,500 to $10,000. “Tools of the trade” are basically what you think they are — the things you need to make a living. For example, a carpenter in bankruptcy would be able to exempt up to $10,000 worth of hammers, saws, levels, etc. A graphic designer would be able to exempt things like computers, photographic/video equipment and the like. Having taken tens-of-thousands of dollars worth of tools over the years, this new exemption is long overdue. I can’t think of anything that facilitates the “fresh start” more than the actual tools that allow people to make a living.

The “wild card” exemption nearly doubled from $800 to $1,500. This exemption can apply to any “personal” property (anything but real estate) that is “tangible” (something you can physically touch — so no bank accounts or stocks). I can say from experience that many more Idahoans will be able to keep their ATVs, snowmobiles and dirt bikes as a result of this. Whether this is conducive to the “fresh start” — I’ll leave that to you.

The fallout from Covid-19 continues to play out. However, given all the comparisons to the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis, it’s a safe bet more and more Idahoans will be heading toward bankruptcy in the coming months or years. While House Bill 464 did not anticipate a global pandemic, it will give the “honest but unfortunate” debtors of Idaho relief when it is needed most.

Jeremy J. Gugino is a Democratic communications volunteer.

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A small outbreak of coronavirus at a Fry Foods plant in Weiser gives a prime example of the importance of testing for COVID-19. More than that, it represents a warning shot across the bow of potential pitfalls if we don’t reopen our economy the right way.

As we tiptoe through Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s phased reopening plan and approach a more robust Stage 3, it’s going to become even more important that we take the necessary steps to prevent future outbreaks.

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Fry Foods offers an early case study.

The Weiser food processing plant employs 260 people to make onion rings and other food products. It shut down earlier this month when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fry Foods initially didn’t test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only the 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories (state run-laboratories) tested all that they had the capacity to do in one day, according to Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state lab can do about has a testing capacity of approximately 200 tests per day.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, told the Idaho Statesman, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

Fortunately, Crush the Curve Idaho, a private, business-led initiative established during the outbreak to increase testing, stepped in and tested every employee at Fry Foods.

By Tuesday of this week, 20 employees — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic.

RAPID-RESPONSE TESTING

That’s what needs to happen: rapid-response testing. If you have an outbreak at your workplace, get everyone tested. For those who test positive, keep them home and isolated. For those who test negative, they can keep on working and you’re back in business.

When the outbreak hit Fry Foods, company officials made the decision to shut the plant down.

Without adequate testing, that’s unfortunately the right thing to do. Without testing, you have no idea whether you have seven infected employees, 70 or 270.

We applaud Fry Foods company officials for making the tough call to shut down, even though they were given the green light by the Southwest District Health Department to resume operations.

Coronavirus is stealthy. A person can carry coronavirus longer without symptoms, potentially spreading to others unwittingly. Some people who carry coronavirus have no symptoms at all.

We are encouraged that Crush the Curve Idaho stepped up and stepped in here.

But Idaho needs a more concerted and organized plan to do rapid-response testing.

We are a fragmented health system. Health providers include Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, Primary Health, Saltzer, among others. Then think about all the entities who pay for health care: Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence BlueShield, PacificSource, SelectHealth, etc. Throw in Medicare, Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

Even our own government health management system is fragmented, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and seven independent health districts not operated by the state.

And, in the case of Fry Foods, situated in a city bordering Oregon, workers were from two states.

NO COORIDINATED EFFORTS

No wonder Fry Foods officials were at a loss for where to turn for help. Without some sort of coordinated effort to test all employees and somehow pay for those tests, shutting down the plant was the best option.

It’s worth noting that the Fry Foods employee who initially had coronavirus was at a family gathering of a larger number than outlined in the governor’s reopening plan and was with visitors from out of state, two violations of the governor’s guidelines. That’s why we have the guidelines, and that’s why it’s important to follow the guidelines. Otherwise, this is what you get: an outbreak that shuts down an entire food manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, shutting down operations every time there’s an outbreak is not going to get the job done.

And there will be more outbreaks as we reopen our economy, reopen factories and workplaces.

Idaho has a lot to be optimistic about, and we have a golden opportunity to lead the nation in reopening our economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We have had relatively few cases (around 2,300) and few deaths (77). Our early efforts to shut down parts of our social interactions and Little’s quick call to issue a statewide stay-home order clearly have paid off. Idahoans’ adherence to the stay-home order has helped to flatten the curve and control the number of new cases. Residents and businesses, alike, have done their part to make this happen.

Our hope is that Idaho can chug along through the stages of reopening. Our fear is that if we don’t do this the right way, we’ll have a surge and we’ll be back to a statewide stay-home order. Nobody wants that.

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