New session, new ideas — Lawmakers gather in Boise for 2014 legislative session
BOISE — Today marks the end of the second week of the 2014 legislative session, and much has been discussed, beginning with Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s State of the State address Jan. 6.
In it, Otter said his three primary goals for this year’s budget are education, securing state water and control of Idaho’s wolf population, but other issues including the changing hands of the Idaho Correctional Facility, an increase in state employee compensation and more have crossed the desks of legislators so far.
Otter introduced his “blueprint for going forward,” which will include a focus on K-through-Career education funding and a five-year plan to replenish the state’s rainy day funds.
The governor said the first year of the five-year plan will be written in ink, while the next four years will be written in pencil to allow for growth and development of the plan.
“Things are looking very favorable,” Otter said. “There are many things we’re going to be able to achieve.”
The health care question
The governor said the state wouldn’t be setting aside funds for Medicaid expansion this year, a choice Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the state couldn’t afford to leave it on the table unchallenged.
“We can’t afford to walk away from this without some kind of dialogue,” Stennett said concerning the governor’s decision on health care. “Even though it’s an election year and we don’t want to take on too many big issues, we need to have a long healthy conversation.”
Bumping employee salaries
Jan. 8 marked the first meeting of the Joint Change in Compensation Committee since 2008.
Donna Yule, executive director of the Idaho Public Employees Association, gave her testimony on behalf of the association and said she hoped the committee would soon implement a plan to improve the livelihood of state employees.
“You’ll be hearing the sad state of affairs,” Yule said. “You’ll hear how difficult it is to hire and retain dedicated employees, because Idaho’s wage is so much lower than other (states).”
On Jan. 10, the JCCC voted unanimously to give state employees a 2 percent increase in salaries. One percent would be given in the form of a one-time salary bonus, and the other 1 percent would be a continuing wage bump in efforts to bring the salaries of Idaho employees closer to national market totals. It is unclear at this point if educators are included in the salary increase.
Reinvesting in criminal justice
Also in the State of the State address, Otter said increased education for the public could lead to fewer individuals in the state prison.
Senate President Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said one of his top three priorities is ensuring further development in criminal justice reinvestment. He said the legislature needs to investigate improving state access to institutions for mental health and drug abuse.
“We have the opportunity to save the people of Idaho millions of dollars,” Hill said, by reworking the current criminal justice system. More information on the state’s handling of the ICC to come next week.
Mild winter weather, dwindling water supply
While Idaho’s mild winter may feel nice, Otter said it could lead to a water shortage. In efforts to combat a potential shortage next spring, Otter has set aside $15 million for improvements on local aquifers and reservoirs, and also to gain a bit more stability with other local sources.
Otter said more information on whether Idaho will experience a water shortage will be available in March.
Coming up next week
Next week is dubbed “education week” at the Capitol and will include presentations from the University of Idaho as well as the community colleges of Idaho. Monday will include presentations on UI’s College of Agriculture, Extension Services and health education programs. Many of the colleges from UI will set up booths in the Capitol rotunda.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will listen to presentations from the Idaho State Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna about the future funding of Idaho’s educational institutions.
Next week will also include presentations from the governor’s education task force on how to best improve state education following the voter rejection of Props 1, 2 and 3. Otter said last week he will allocate $54.7 million to pursue the task force’s recommendations.
“Addressing our education and workforce development needs is my top priority,” Otter said.
Chloe Rambo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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