State Politics

Idaho legislative leaders: Medicaid expansion still in talks

From left, Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, spoke to reporters Tuesday at a luncheon sponsored by the Idaho Press Club.
From left, Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, spoke to reporters Tuesday at a luncheon sponsored by the Idaho Press Club.

A modified expansion of Medicaid in Idaho still might emerge from this legislative session, but likely not without a super-majority of House Republicans signing on, House and Senate leaders told reporters Tuesday.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, took questions regarding health care discussions in the Statehouse, this year’s education funding, Senate prospects for a House-approved tax cut and the status of a seemingly stalled effort to extend state civil rights protections to the LGBT community.

The effort to “Add the Words” to the state’s Human Rights Act would extend anti-discrimination protections based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Compromise language seeks to include provisions for faith-based exemptions for businesses. Hill called the delay his biggest disappointment of the session.

“I want you to know it’s not from a lack of effort. We’ve got good sincere people working on that,” he said. “We’ll see ... where that may go.”

Hill said the biggest session surprise was the health-care debate. Gov. Butch Otter’s budget included a $30 million state-sponsored proposal to help subsidize basic doctor care for Idaho’s poor and uninsured as an alternative to fully expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The Republican-controlled Legislature has opposed expanding Medicaid, but the shortcomings of the state-based proposal have prompted a reassessment — if not for Medicaid expansion outright, for a modified version. Other states where expansion opposition is high have used waivers granted by the federal government that give them flexibility in determining how the federal aid is spent.

“I really thought that the governor’s plan was going to sail through quite easily,” Hill said. “I thought there’d be no interest in all in any type of medical expansion in the traditional or even a non-traditional way.”

He added: “There’s actually more interest being expressed by legislators about … using the federal dollars to help put together an Idaho program.”

Bedke said a “lot of well-meaning legislators (are) doing their own individual due diligence” comparing health care options. Asked whether the Legislature might adjourn without action this year, he said lawmakers are “not bashful about leaving things undone,” but said it was unlikely.

“We’ve posed the question: Do you want to do something or not?” he said. “The answer is a qualified yes.”

But Bedke said it would be “folly for me not to have some general consensus” from Republicans in the House.

Republicans hold 56 of 70 House seats. A health care bill supported by all 14 Democrats could pass with support of 22 Republicans. But it is more likely that Republican leadership will insist on passing the measure on the strength of their caucus alone, which means 36 Republican votes.

Income taxes: Hill said the Senate would probably take up the House-approved bill to shave the top income tax rates by one-tenth of a point, but said later that there’s “been very little discussion about it one way or another.” Hill said Sen. Jeff Siddoway, the Terreton Republican and Senate tax committee chairman who has blocked tax cut proposals in favor of increasing education funding, is “a team player. And if his caucus wants to hear that bill I think he’s going to give it a hearing.”

K-12 education: Both leaders said the budget would come in slightly less than the governor’s proposal. Bedke said it would still amount to $110 million in new money for schools.

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD