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Little says he won’t let the Legislature leave town without funding Medicaid expansion

By BETSY Z. RUSSELL brussell@idahopress.comFebruary 22, 2019

BOISE — Idaho Gov. Brad Little told the Idaho Press Club on Wednesday that he won’t let the Legislature adjourn this year without funding Medicaid expansion, as required by voter-approved Proposition 2. Asked that question, Little had a one-word answer: “No.”

Asked further about various waivers or “sideboards” some lawmakers have been advocating, Little said, “There’s a lot of discussion. … I know that Rep. (John) Vander Woude had 13 items on his list, and I think that list is getting shorter. There’s a big discrepancy between the House ones and the Senate ones; they need to get together. And I’m fairly confident they’re going to get there.”

Little said he’s more concerned about “how expanded Medicaid fits into the whole metrics of how we provide health care. I said it in the State of the State — we’ve got twice as many people who’ve been priced out of health care because of the cost, as we do that were left out because of the changes that were put in place when the ACA (the federal Affordable Care Act) passed. … We need to have a pathway for people that are 133 or 138 percent of poverty to have the opportunity to move on as they better themselves, so that they don’t artificially keep their income level at 133 percent to qualify for Medicaid. That is a key component of it. That’s not one of the sideboards. That’s one of the things we need to do in health policy.”

Asked if there are some “sideboard” proposals lawmakers are kicking around that he wouldn’t support, Little said, “Yes,” but declined to specify. “There’s some on there that’ll never get through the Senate,” he said. Asked if there are some he’d veto, he said, “It’s too early to tell.”

Here are some of the other issues Little addressed in his on-the-record Q-and-A with the press:

SCHOOL BUDGET: “We had a little wrestling match on my two big priorities,” the governor said, recounting how he met with the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chairs and other JFAC members. Those two priorities were starting teacher pay and his early literacy initiative for students in kindergarten through third grade.

The starting teacher pay bill, he noted, isn’t in the budget; it was up for a hearing in the House Education Committee on Wednesday and passed there with just one “no” vote, from Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley. She said she worried it didn’t address hard-to-fill teaching positions in areas like special ed. If the bill passes, JFAC will address funding it through a trailer bill.

On Little’s proposal to double early literacy funding at a cost of a little over $13 million, he said, “I made a very strong point that that was basically non-negotiable.” Still, he noted that JFAC tapped $3 million in one-time funding to get up to that $13 million total.

The boost to starting teacher pay, he said, “was about the signal to students that are going on to college to get into education, that we value ’em, and we don’t want, like we’re having right now, where a high percentage of our best graduates from our education programs are going out of state to teach. … So that bait of starting teacher pay … is really important.”

Overall, Little said, “I’m happy. I think there are a few little tweaks, but the Legislature, that’s their right and privilege to put their fingerprints on it, so I was pleased.”

OPPORTUNITY SCHOLARSHIP: Little touted his proposal to increase the state’s Opportunity Scholarships, which are both need- and merit-based, by $7 million next year. He said he’s not ready to sign on to a new “outcomes-based” funding model for higher ed that the state Board of Education endorsed, but knew the scholarship increase would “move the needle on particularly students with limited resources, to get them to go on to college.”

“I got really good acceptance from all the institutions on it,” Little said. “They’re dialing that number back a little bit, and what they’re doing is taking money out of an endowment that was sitting there.”

That’s the Opportunity Scholarship fund that former Gov. Butch Otter created in hopes of building up a $100 million endowment to fund the annual scholarships from its earnings alone. But it’s never come near that mark; it now is around $19 million, and earns about $200,000 a year. JFAC tapped into the fund to make up the balance of Little’s literacy initiative.

“So they’re taking some of that money to fund my Opportunity Scholarships,” the governor said. “I just worry that it’s not ongoing. … I told ’em it was a high priority.”

Asked about Idaho’s dead-last ranking for Hispanic students attaining college degrees, Little said, “Those are exactly some of the people that we’re addressing” with the Opportunity Scholarship, along with expanded community colleges in the state and dual-credit programs that allow high school students to earn college credit.

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR: Asked about the role Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is playing in his administration, compared to the role he played as lieutenant governor in the Otter Administration, Little said, “That was my option. … Her involvement is her option.” He said he “had a little bit of an advantage” because he lives in Emmett, and one of his sons returned home to run the family ranch, freeing him up to “be a full-time part-time employee.”

Asked if McGeachin is doing that as well, Little said, “I think a little less.” She’ll be acting governor this weekend, he said, as he’s headed to Washington, D.C., for meetings with the national and western governors. Little said McGeachin has indicated she may “spend more time at home in Idaho Falls outside of the session. But that’s really to my advantage and her advantage, because that will give our administration more coverage in the eastern part of the state.”

ROAD FUNDING: Asked if he agrees with his predecessor, Gov. Otter, that general fund dollars shouldn’t be used for transportation, Little said, “I agree with my predecessor 100 percent, but we’ve gotta do something.” He said, “I tell all the transportation advocates, when we have a slowdown, and we will, that’s a fact of life — kids will always trump roads, so you can’t count on general fund spending when we have a slowdown. … You need long-term, sustainable transportation funding.”

Just hours after the governor’s remarks, the House voted, 52-18, in favor of HB 107, a proposal from Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, to dedicate another $15 million of state sales tax revenues that now flow to the general fund to road work instead; that bill now moves to the Senate side.

DAYLIGHT SAVING: Asked if he supports repealing daylight saving time in Idaho, as a House bill proposes, Little said, “I’m all for it if we do it nationally.” He said, “My cows … don’t know the difference. And it’s gotten to be a bigger and bigger issue. But it’s such a huge issue from a commerce standpoint, the surrounding states.” He noted that portions of Idaho are in media markets centered in Montana, Utah, and Washington, and said, “That trade that goes back and forth of those time zones is really important.”

LGBT RIGHTS: Little said the “Add the Words” bill, which would add protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to the Idaho Human Rights Act, is “a legislative issue, and I have talked to the group formally and informally that are working on that. And I hope and pray that they come to some resolution that balances … what is fundamental … in Idaho DNA, that we don’t discriminate. But then recognizes religious freedom. And I know there’s conversations going back and forth. My instinct is where we are now from a timing standpoint, it may not happen this year, but I do know that that dialogue is going on, and I’ve talked to people about it.”

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