BOISE -- The 2014 Idaho legislative session is underway, after the Governor's State of the State address Monday. Governor Butch Otter set forth his agenda for the session, but it's something he said he doesn't want to address that has Democratic leaders calling foul.
Otter said he does not want to make the decision of expanding Medicaid eligibility (it's a possibility granted by the affordable care act). Otter says he wants to change the way Medicaid is administered before he considers expanding it.
At a Democratic media event Tuesday, House Minority Leader John Rusche (D-Lewiston) says putting off the Medicaid decision is leaving money on the table and denies needed services to some Idahoans. Rusche also claims that some Republicans in the House agree with him. "There is significant interest in the tax relief that Medicaid redesign would offer, and the help to the general fund. Many more are interested in what it would mean to the mental health services that are still woefully underfunded. I'm not sure what the politics will dictate that they do."
Bipartisan cooperation happened on a big Affordable Care Act issue last year, when some Republicans joined with House Democrats to help create the state insurance exchange, rather than let the federal government do it. But, that was with the urging of the governor.
We're also learning more about the governor's budget proposal. He wants more money to cover the state's share of health insurance for Idaho workers, but he's not pushing to increase state employee wages. The insurance increases will cost the state $12 million, so Otter's budget chief says there just isn't enough money for pay raises.
Tuesday, Democratic leaders said they want to find a way to make that pay raise happen anyway, since all of Idaho's wages, including state wages, are behind national averages. A joint legislative committee will examine the issue, for the first time in six years. Rusche says, that's a good start. "You and I both know, that if the Democrats proposed a salary increase, without having the support of the majority, that it would go nowhere. So, understanding the situation and making sure that we're available to help our compatriots on the other side, and then working collaboratively to help that out, I think is the best way to do that."
The latest state report shows pay for Idaho state workers is about 29 percent lower than private-sector wages, and about 10 percent lower than rates in surrounding states. Democrats also hope a state increase will help spur overall wage increases for Idahoans, which rank at the bottom for U.S. states.
Meanwhile, there are still two empty seats in the House, after two resignations. Republicans in District 15 will meet this week to decide on three names to give the governor, who will name the new lawmaker just days later.
Democrats in District 18 have already given the governor three names; lawyer Ilana Rubel, child advocate Beth Oppenheimer, and community transportation advocate Brooke Green. They expect a decision from the governor this week.