This editorial appeared in the Idaho Statesman

The 2020 Idaho legislative session has begun. Here is the Idaho Statesman editorial board’s list of the Top 10 priorities for the upcoming session:

DO

▪ Pass a bill that allows for a local-option tax: It’s hard to understand why, when just about everyone in the state — from city officials to chambers of commerce — asks the Legislature to allow for a local-option tax, the Legislature simply ignores it. We’re not asking for the Legislature to force a new tax; we’re asking lawmakers to let local voters decide for themselves whether they want to add a tax at the local level. It could be used for any number of pressing needs, including a new Canyon County jail, a Boise public transit system or a new courthouse in Bear Lake County. Legislators should let local voters make those decisions for themselves, provide another revenue source and get those burdens off the local property tax bill.

▪ Change how we build new schools in Idaho: The easiest way to make a change is to simply add “school districts” to the list of agencies in state law that are allowed to collect impact fees. Fast-growing districts such as West Ada and Kuna have to build a new school every couple of years, and the only way they can do it is by asking existing taxpayers to pay for a bond. This has to change. Allowing school districts to collect impact fees would go a long way toward alleviating property tax relief.

▪ Ensure public access to public lands: We’ve got a problem in this state when it comes to public access to public lands. Undeveloped roads that criss-cross private and public lands are being closed off by private landowners, rendering the public lands on the other side inaccessible. On top of that, the Legislature passed a tough trespassing law that criminalized people who, even accidentally, pass through private property. That is, if that land hasn’t already been gated off. It may seem like a tall order, but the state should work with private land owners on creating easements on roads that cut through private lands, especially if any public dollars were used to improve or maintain those roads.

▪ Get rid of the state law that allows parents to ignore medical treatment for children for preventable illnesses: It’s often referred to as “faith healing,” but that’s a misnomer, as prayer without medical attention often leads to death. This is a tiresome and ridiculous debate that has gone on far too long while children continue to die. Quit citing some sort of bogeyman argument about religious freedom, join the rest of us in the 21st century and do your job by protecting the most vulnerable among us.

In the most recent report of the Idaho Child Fatality Review Team in June, looking at child deaths from 2016, investigators found five cases in which parents delayed or refused routine medical care or opted out of recommended vaccinations due to personal or religious beliefs. Investigators determined that these deaths might have been prevented with timely medical treatment, compliance with scheduled vaccinations, and/or proper prenatal care.

▪ Protect and repair Idaho’s roads, bridges infrastructure: “We must address transportation deficiencies. I ask you to join me in looking at these long-term needs – specifically, the safety of our roads and bridges and the necessary improvements to preserve our citizens’ most precious commodity: their time. It is critical that we provide the needed road capacity to get our people and products to their destinations in the most efficient manner.”

That was from Gov. Brad Little’s first state of the state address in January. The Legislature should look at raising the gas tax again and issuing new bonds, selling it to the public with a list of very specific projects that would be funded by that money. The Legislature should remember that fiscal responsibility includes appropriating adequate funds to take care of and repair that which you already have.

Idaho’s existing infrastructure is in need of serious updating and repair. Failing to address such needs is fiscally irresponsible in the long run and extremely costly to future generations. Idaho received an overall C-minus grade in the most recent American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card for Infrastructure, citing 393 (8.74%) of Idaho’s 4,492 bridges as structurally deficient and 15% of Idaho’s 52,437 miles of public roads are in poor condition.

▪ Deal with Idaho’s burgeoning prison population: Idaho has about 700 prisoners housed in Texas, as the facilities in Idaho are full. We think this problem will require a combination of fixes, including sentencing reform at the same time as increasing capacity, increasing drug and alcohol rehabilitation resources, and increasing mental health treatment.

▪ Improve and increase mental health treatment: County jails and state prisons are probably the worst place for people with mental illness, and yet our jails and prisons are overburdened with people who have mental health problems. We still have not come up with a solution for the troubled Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa, and we haven’t solved the problem of providing services and treatment for those with severe mental health problems in the community. The state has done a commendable job of establishing seven regional behavioral health centers across the state, with the goal of keeping people with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system. The state should look at the effectiveness of these centers and expand them if they prove to be working.

▪ Properly fund public education, K-12 and higher education: Now, more than ever, we need an educated workforce, especially to fill an estimated 7,000 STEM-related jobs that went unfilled in Idaho, as of 2017. We also need an educated workforce to attract employers of the future. Now is not the time to shortchange K-12 and higher education in Idaho. Money spent now is an investment in the future. Invest wisely. Let’s double down on education, not cut corners. State higher education funding is down 6%, when adjusted for inflation, compared to where it was before the recession in 2008. As for K-12 public education spending, Idaho ranks 50th in the nation in per-pupil funding and has not fully recovered to prerecession spending levels. Further, according to Idaho Education News, a recent Education Week study gave Idaho the worst score in the nation when it came to a combination of education spending and the equity of that spending. We should be ashamed.

▪ Legalize hemp: The 2018 farm bill legalized hemp, but antiquated Idaho law still doesn’t make a distinction between marijuana and hemp; anything that tests positive for the psychoactive drug THC is illegal. Hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC. In the state’s eyes, any green, leafy substance containing THC, however small, makes a plant marijuana. Hemp is a promising, lucrative crop, and some farmers are leaving Idaho to go grow it in other states. It’s time for Idaho to join the 47 other states that have legalized it.

▪ Get rid of Idaho’s “personal belief” exemption for vaccines: Idaho dodged a bullet with a measles outbreak last year. But the state has among the highest percentage of kindergartners with an exemption from one or more required vaccines in the country, so it’s only a matter of time before we have a bad, likely deadly, outbreak. Get rid of the “personal belief” category for opting out of safe, needed vaccinations.

▪ And here’s a bonus item: Add the Words. The Legislature should add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the the Idaho Human Rights Act so that those residents have the same protection as the rest of us. This debate has been going on for years, far too long.

DON’T

▪ Mess with the initiative process: The Legislature already made it difficult to get an initiative on the ballot in Idaho, and last year, legislators tried to make it virtually impossible. Leave it be.

▪ Chip away at Medicaid expansion: We voted to expand Medicaid. We didn’t vote to add work requirements or make sure women have to go to a primary care physician before seeing an ob/gyn. We voted to expand Medicaid. Period.

▪ Further restrict public records laws by trying to add in exemptions for emails: We know you’ve tried to do this before, but we don’t think it’s right to try to hide who’s trying to influence you on legislation and for what purposes. Keep your communications and meetings open.

▪ Pass laws that you know won’t stand up to constitutional muster: It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to create laws that later get shot down by the courts, especially when similar laws in other states already got shot down.

▪ Attempt to defund public universities over diversity efforts.

▪ Create a blanket law on cities’ ability to collect property taxes: Property taxes are becoming a problem in some parts of Idaho, but don’t punish Melba for property taxes in Boise. Let voters in each city regulate their own public officials.

▪ Mess with the Office of Performance Evaluations: This valuable resource is nonpartisan and independent. Keep it that way.

▪ Tinker with the Redistricting Commission: It is a bipartisan, independent body right now. Efforts to make it partisan and tilt it in Republicans’ favor are ill-advised.

▪ Assume you are voting on behalf of some silent majority: Do not assume that even though person after person comes before you testifying one way that the majority of voters really somehow believes the opposite. Look at Medicaid expansion, which was supported by 61% of the voters in Idaho.

▪ Enter debate on an issue with a closed mind and preconceived notions: Please listen to the stories of people who testify before you without judgment and with an uncynical view.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board. Board member Bill Myers recused himself from this editorial.

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