Industrial hemp finally made it over the hump Wednesday.
So did martial law, and funding for broadband infrastructure.
However, a bill that effectively eliminates the state and local indigent care program ran into opposition and was sent to the Senate floor for possible amendments.
It was another fast-paced day at the Idaho Statehouse. Here are some details:
BALANCE OF POWER — Addressing the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches was a top priority for Republican lawmakers heading into the 2021 session.
They started work on the issue even before the Legislature convened in January, and introduced more than two dozen bills on the topic.
On Wednesday, the 87th day of the session, Senate Bill 1136 became the first balance of power bill to make it through the entire legislative process. The House approved the measure on a 54-16 near-party-line vote.
The bill limits the governor’s emergency powers during a state of “extreme peril,” such as a terrorist attack or violent insurrection.
It allows the governor in these situations to issue rules and orders that are “necessary to support the National Guard or militia” and that are “essential to protect life and property from violent destruction.”
The bill caps the length of emergency declarations at 60 days, unless the Legislature authorizes an extension. If the declaration is needed solely for the purposes of accessing federal funds or resources, it can remain in place beyond the 60 days. However, the governor can’t use a declaration of extreme peril to set aside state law, or to limit or suspend any constitutional rights.
All the representatives from north central Idaho supported the bill, which now heads to the governor for his signature.
HEMP GAINS APPROVAL — Years worth of work on industrial hemp came to a head Wednesday, when the Senate approved House Bill 126 on a 30-5 vote.
All three senators from north central Idaho supported the legislation, which legalizes the production, sale and processing of industrial hemp, so long as it’s done in accordance with rules that will be published by the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
If the governor signs the bill into law — which is not a sure thing — Idaho would become the last state in the nation to legalize the crop.
INDIGENT CARE — Hospital and health care officials from across the state raised concerns about legislation that restricts access to the state and local indigent care system.
House Bill 316 says anyone who qualifies for Medicaid or private health insurance would no longer be eligible for assistance through the taxpayer-funded indigent program, which covers medical bills for people who otherwise can’t afford treatment.
Given the availability of expanded Medicaid services, or subsidized health insurance through the state exchange, supporters of the legislation say taxpayers should no longer be on the hook for this assistance.
However, Brian Whitlock, president of the Idaho Hospital Association, told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that the bill fails to take into account the number of mental health patients who are involuntarily committed by the courts, and who receive treatment at local hospitals.
The estimated cost of that treatment could be as much as $38 million per year, he said.
“If the number is $38 million, and no one is eligible for the (indigent) program, who pays for that?” Whitlock asked. “The bill sponsor says it shouldn’t be taxpayers, and I get that. But should it be the hospitals?”
Micky Moyers, the interim chief executive of Intermountain Hospital in Boise, said if the government is going to take away someone’s rights and commit them involuntarily, then government has a responsibility to pay for their health care.
Shifting that burden to hospitals could be their financial undoing, he said.
“This bill is potentially catastrophic to Intermountain,” Moyers said.
Whitlock said every hospital in the state has similar concerns — particularly since HB 316 has an emergency clause that would shift indigent costs to them immediately.
“This bill says it doesn’t matter if hospitals have budgeted (for the added expense). It doesn’t matter if they’ve hired staff. Upon signature by the governor, it’s going to be handled this way,” he said.
The bill sponsor, Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, said he was willing to amend the legislation to change the effective date to Jan. 1, 2022. That would give hospitals time to prepare; it also gives uninsured Idahoans time to sign up for subsidized health insurance.
The legislation also shifts financial responsibility for public health districts from the state to the counties. That would save the state about $10 million per year. Counties would eat that cost, but they’d save an estimated $12 million per year in indigent payments.
The Health and Welfare Committee sent the bill to the Senate floor for possible amendments. Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said that should give all the stakeholders a chance to work out their differences.
“I think it’s an opportunity to get everyone at the table, and we’ll get a good solution that will be right for Idaho,” she said.
BROADBAND FUNDS — The joint budget committee approved $45 million in additional funding for statewide broadband projects, as part of Gov. Brad Little’s “Building Idaho’s Future” infrastructure investment plan.
The appropriation includes $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, which must be spent by Dec. 31, 2021.
The remaining funds are state general fund dollars generated by a 5 percent budget holdback the governor ordered at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re being repurposed to help improve Idaho’s broadband connectivity.
Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.