As legislative leaders huddle to chart strategy for the upcoming session in the Idaho Capitol, two experts warn lawmakers against expanding government and going on a spending binge.
Gov. Butch Otter will lay out his agenda in the State of the State address Monday, and lawmakers will begin their business with much on their plates, including education spending, Medicaid expansion and examining tax reform.
Christie Herrera, a senior fellow with the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability, told IdahoReporter.com that Idaho legislators should examine reforming the state’s Medicaid system rather than expanding, an option under Obamacare.
“Idaho should steer clear of implementing ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, which would extend taxpayer-funded health care to largely able-bodied, working-age adults without dependent children,” Herrera said.
Otter’s hand-picked Medicaid work group recommended late last year that the state expand the government health-care program, though the suggestion included putting some enrollees into managed care and providing others with vouchers to purchase coverage through the health exchange.
“Instead of putting a whole new class of able-bodied adults onto a new Medicaid welfare program, lawmakers should instead focus on efforts to make the current program better for the patients on it, and the taxpayers who pay for it,” Herrera said.
She pointed to Florida as a standard-bearer in government health-care reform. A University of Florida study revealed the reforms, a pilot project covering 300,000 residents, saved taxpayers significant sums per month.
Medicaid looks to remain on the backburner, at least in the short-term. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, wrote last week on his personal blog that lawmakers aren’t looking at expanding.
“Although there are financial incentives for state and local governments, there is currently no appetite in the Idaho Legislature to extend that federal program beyond what the law requires,” Hill wrote.
Still, lawmakers will see pressure from Idaho hospitals and associated interest groups who would stand to gain millions from expansions.
Another expert, State Budget Solutions’ Joe Luppino-Esposito, told IdahoReporter.com lawmakers should be careful with taxpayer money and prioritize spending to match policy goals.
“It would be important for Idaho to first commit to performance-based budgeting before increasing education funding,” Luppino-Esposito said. “Just because more money was spent in the past does not mean that more money is needed now.”
Idaho lawmakers, including powerful Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, have suggested boosting education spending wins out as a top priority this session. Siddoway pledged to block all tax relief for Idahoans until the state’s education budget is made whole, after suffering cuts in 2010 as lawmakers dealt with lowered revenues from the economic recession.
Luppino-Esposito urged legislators to take a more thoughtful approach than simply using previous spending high-water marks as guidelines.
“When budgets are based on previous years' allocations, there will be endless increases and little need for review of the effectiveness of the education spending,” he said.
“Instead, legislators should consider implementing a system that focuses more on outcomes, not on the dollars inputted. This shift in thinking would deliver better education and help ensure that spending is directed for what is best for kids, not what is best for the system."
Hill suggested last week lawmakers will go on a spending bonanza for education. “There is a good chance that the legislature will completely restore the funding for public schools and approve the largest public education budget in Idaho’s history,” Hill wrote.
Another Otter task force, this one focused on education, outlined 20 policy goals for the governor and lawmakers to achieve, including raising starting teacher pay and providing more opportunities for educator development. The plan, though, boasted a hefty price tag -- somewhere around $400 million.
Luppino-Esposito added one more idea for lawmakers this session: reforming the state’s taxpayer-funded pension system. Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman has forwarded this idea as a tactic for lowering overall employment costs and freeing up dollars for the classroom.
Luppino-Esposito said reform, such as moving workers onto a 401k-style plan, would benefit government workers and taxpayers alike.
“Ending defined benefit plans for new government employees is a great way to stop the bleeding, so to speak,” he told IdahoReporter.com “This is a lower risk for taxpayers, but also for employees, who would likely transition to a 401k-style, which is far more stable and gives employees portability and control over their retirement funds.”
There’s likely little taste for a large-scale reform of Idaho pensions, though Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, told IdahoReporter.com last year she may pursue a plan that would remove private lobbyists from the state retirement plan.
Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes IdahoReporter.com.