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Veterans Home COVID-19 outbreak worsens, CFAC approves $2M for staffing

BOISE – The COVID-19 outbreak at the Idaho State Veterans Home in Boise has gotten much worse, state Veterans Division Director Marv Hagedorn told the Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee Thursday, and the panel voted unanimously to grant his request for $2 million more in CARES Act funds for contract staffing.

“The increased cost that we’re experiencing in just one home is startling,” Hagedorn told the state panel, “and we do not have CARES Act funds right now to cover all of the costs should all of the homes have an issue. That’s why this request for funding was sent in.”

As of Wednesday, the state Veterans Division reported 28 active COVID-19 cases among residents of the Boise home and four deaths. Three residents have been hospitalized. Additionally, 11 staff members between the three state veterans homes in Boise, Pocatello and Lewiston have active cases of COVID-19, seven in Boise, one in Pocatello and three in Lewiston.

In documents submitted to CFAC, Hagedorn reported that the outbreak in the Boise home is “larger and longer than anticipated.” And because the Boise VA is “experiencing a similar situation,” Hagedorn wrote that he may not be able to continue to get “free help” in the form of loaned nursing staff in the weeks to come.

“If this additional $2 million can be added to our budget, which is quickly dwindling and won’t take us through the next couple of weeks, we should be covered until the end of December,” Hagedorn wrote.

The panel, which votes on allocations from Idaho’s $1.25 billion share of federal CARES Act coronavirus aid, quickly voted to approve the request. “You should have access to the funding instantaneously,” Alex Adams, CFAC chairman, told Hagedorn. “Please go forth and keep our veterans safe.”

CFAC also approved two more CARES Act allocations on Thursday:

  • $1.6 million for the state Judicial Branch, mostly for added costs to hold jury trials with appropriate social distancing; and
  • Up to $2 million more for the Idaho Rebounds Economic Advisory Committee’s “One Idaho Campaign.”

Sara Omundson, administrative director of the courts, told the committee, “As a result of the pandemic, the fact is the courts have been very innovative, very flexible in how we ensure that the courts remain open and that business continues.”

“But in transitioning to holding court proceedings in various ways, we’ve also now had to transition to holding court in various places,” she said. “In a matter of a few weeks we set up software to hold remote court proceedings, but what we really need to focus on right now are jury trials. That’s where we’re seeing the biggest delays.”

To hold jury trials, courts may need to bring in as many as 150 jurors at a time, she said. “We have to ensure that they are socially distanced,” she said, which simply isn’t possible in many of Idaho’s older courthouses. Jurors also have to be able to see people testifying and see the exhibits, and provisions need to be made for members of the public to view what’s happening in courtrooms even when there isn’t room for them to be there in person.

“We’re not set up for this,” Omundson said. “We really need some additional funding. We’re trying to minimize the impact on the counties, but make sure we can hold the jury trials in a speedy manner.”

That request, too, was approved unanimously and speedily. Adams said, “I think we all recognize the unique challenges our judicial branch and courts are facing.”

Bobbi Jo Meuleman, Gov. Brad Little’s intergovernmental affairs director, presented the “One Idaho Campaign” request. She noted that in April, CFAC approved $2.5 million for the marketing campaign, “to promote supporting our Idaho businesses, consumer confidence and employee confidence.”

She said the rebound committee is now seeking up to $2 million for its “final push.”

“You’re going to see this campaign change a little bit, be a little bit more targeted on education, education, and education when it comes to minimizing the spread,” Meuleman said. “As we heard earlier from Administrator Hagedorn regarding our veterans home, our veterans hospital … and a lot of our hospitals throughout the state are really reaching that capacity, and it’s really critical right now that we continue to push the messaging of things that we need to be doing to minimize that spread, particularly as we go into flu season.”

Just a day earlier, Idaho announced its first two flu deaths of the season; both victims also were infected with COVID-19.

State Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said, “I think that the campaign that we saw on TV and other places … was very well done, and I certainly do appreciate it. I’m probably going to vote in favor of this, but I am concerned about … factions out there that continue to intentionally undermine these messages.”

“I know we can’t help that,” she said, “but at some point I hope that leaders across the state will start to discuss how we can manage this a little more directly, versus simply asking people to do what’s right. We know clearly what minimizes the risk for transmission of this infection, and we could get our economy back if we would all work toward that goal. So I will support the proposal, but I just am struggling that statewide we as leaders can’t get on the same page with this.”

Wintrow moved to approve the request, and state Labor Director Jani Revier seconded the motion; it passed unanimously.

After Thursday’s actions, Idaho still had $138 million left in unallocated CARES Act funds.

Trump's lead in Georgia shrinks to below 4,000 votes

Editor’s note: This story was published at 8 p.m. Thursday.

ATLANTA — The margin between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the Southern battleground state of Georgia continued to narrow Thursday as election workers in mostly Democratic-leaning counties continued to tally absentee ballots.

Soon after Trump spoke Thursday evening from the White House, his lead in Georgia shrunk to just 3,486 votes — about 0.07 of a percentage point.

Only 16,105 absentee ballots remained uncounted as of 6:40 p.m. Thursday, according to Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state. The remaining outstanding ballots come from a mix of blue and red counties, with some of the biggest hauls coming from predominantly Democratic-leaning suburbs.

“I am prayerful that we can get to a resolution by the end of the day,” Gabriel Sterling, the voting system implementation manager for the secretary of state’s office, said at a news conference Thursday at the state Capitol. “But if it has to go to tomorrow to make sure that we get it accurately done, then so be it.”

The state’s presidential race, he said, was “more than likely” going to go to a recount, adding that most recounts do not make a difference.

According to Georgia law, a recount can be requested if the margin between the two candidates is 0.5% or less of the total vote.

The recount must be requested in writing by the losing candidate within two business days of county certification. The secretary of state would then direct all counties to perform a recount. There are no set deadlines for completion, but Sterling said it could take up to a week.

On Thursday afternoon, a small huddle of Trump supporters gathered outside State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta to protest the counting of absentee ballots.

“Four more years!” they shouted.

Georgia’s election officials, who are led by Raffensperger, a Republican, insist they are safeguarding the integrity of the process and discounted claims of ballot rigging. After certification, Sterling said, the state would conduct an audit.

“The effort is to make sure that everybody’s legal vote is counted properly and that the actual results are reflective of the voters’ intent,” Sterling said Thursday afternoon, noting that it was the first time in 20 years the state had used paper ballots. “These close elections require us to be diligent and make sure we do everything right.

“I think if anyone’s going to try to rig a system, they’d see something less close than this,” he added.

The Trump campaign also lost a pair of legal challenges on Thursday, with a Savannah judge dismissing allegations that late mail-in ballots were being counted in the coastal Georgia community and a Michigan judge rejecting an effort to stop the vote count there.

In both cases, the judges found no evidence to support claims that tried to raise concerns about the integrity of ballot counting.

But the Trump campaign filed new lawsuits in two other states Thursday alleging ballot issues, according to news reports. In Nevada, the campaign announced that it was filing a lawsuit claiming that people no longer living in that state cast ballots. In Philadelphia, the campaign filed a federal lawsuit seeking an emergency injunction and Republican oversight of ballot counting. In an earlier case, the campaign also had sought to halt vote-counting in Pennsylvania, but the counting continued. However, a state court said that GOP observers would be allowed to be closer to the canvassing process.

The Georgia case was filed late Wednesday after two GOP observers in Chatham County raised concerns about what they saw at the Board of Registrars office. The two questioned whether 53 ballots they suspected were late had been mingled with a stack of other absentee ballots. Georgia law requires any ballot that arrives after 7 p.m. on Election Day to be invalidated.

The hearing, however, produced no evidence that the deadline had been violated or other evidence of election law violations. Superior Court Judge James Bass swiftly threw out the case after listening to more than an hour of testimony and statements. His written order said nothing in the “argument and evidence of record” indicated the ballots in question were received after the deadline.

“Additionally, there is no evidence that the Chatham County Board of Elections or the Chatham County Board of Registrars has failed to comply with the law,” his order said.

The hearing offered a window into the suspicions by some poll watchers amid tensions over the closest presidential election the state has seen in decades. Both of the GOP watchers acknowledged under oath that they had no evidence that the 53 ballots in question had come in after the deadline.

Georgia has not supported a Democratic president since Bill Clinton in 1992. But in the last decade, it has gradually shifted more blue as the state’s population has surged to 10.6 million from 9.6 million.

In the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won Georgia by 8 percentage points. In 2016, Trump won by 5 percentage points. Two years later, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate, won the governorship over Democrat Stacey Abrams by just 1.4 percentage points.

The secretary of state’s office has said security measures were in place to secure the vote. In Fulton, the state’s most populous county, a state monitor is in the room for all counts; a pre-certification audit will provide additional confidence that the votes were accurately tallied.

“We have long anticipated — and said publicly — that counting would most likely take place into Wednesday night and perhaps Thursday morning,” Raffensperger said. “We’re on pace to accomplish that responsibly, ensuring that the voice of every eligible voter is heard. It’s important to act quickly, but it’s more important to get it right.”

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Idaho faces retirement savings gap
  • Updated

BOISE — Six in 10 of Idaho’s private-sector workers have no access to a retirement plan at work, according to a state study, and that means big future costs for the state when those workers have to turn to programs such as Medicaid and food stamps when they retire.

Forty-five states have considered or enacted legislation or launched studies to look at increasing retirement savings among their private-sector workers. But the Idaho study notes that Idaho policymakers haven’t yet decided what the state’s role should be.

“States have a history of being leaders and being innovators and coming up with innovative solutions to problems, and that’s exactly what they’re now doing with respect to retirement savings,” Angela Antonelli, research professor and director of the Center for Retirement Initiatives at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, during a Boise City Club virtual forum on Thursday.

“The cost of doing nothing today to address this is significant,” she said, “and it’s only going to continue to grow over time.”

A bipartisan group of 12 Idaho lawmakers in 2019 requested the state Office of Performance Evaluations to conduct the study; it was published Aug. 31.

During the City Club forum on the topic on Thursday, Pam Eaton, head of the Idaho Retailers Association and the Idaho Lodging & Restaurant Association, said, “We need to give employers the tools and opportunity to educate not only themselves but also their employees on the importance of saving for retirement and how to do that. That is why I think these conversations are coming at a vital time right now.”

Idaho’s population is aging quickly. The Idaho Department of Labor projects that 20% of the state’s population will be over age 65 by 2026, compared to 15% in 2016.

Antonelli said, “The reality is nationally we have more than 50 million American workers who go to work every day who don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan. … The vast majority of people do not take action independently to set up their own retirement account. They’re significantly more likely to do that if they have one that’s offered by their employer.”

A dozen states are taking action to set up state-facilitated retirement plans for private-sector workers, including Oregon; to establish state-run marketplaces that help connect private-sector employees to retirement accounts run by private vendors, like Washington; or to otherwise incentivize retirement savings. According to the Idaho study, New Mexico was the most recent, establishing its plan in February.

Idaho State Treasurer Julie Ellsworth has convened an informal working group of stakeholders that’s been looking into the issue, the state report says; that group has been meeting for a year.

Lupe Wissel, state director of AARP Idaho, said, “Over the years we have become more and more concerned that people are retiring without enough money to live. I’m not talking about money to travel or … to take up that special hobby that you always talked about doing. … I am talking about just having enough money to merely survive.”

Antonelli said Social Security was envisioned as part of a “three-legged stool” to fund retirement for Americans, that also relied on employer plans and personal savings. But now, she said, “Unfortunately that stool ... is broken on the ground.”

Social Security, she said, is “a very critical piece of the puzzle, but it is not enough to depend on.”

The Idaho study found the smaller the business, the less likely it is to offer workers a retirement plan. It also found that Idaho employees who are younger, lower-income, less-educated or Hispanic were most likely to have no such options offered by their employers.

“When retirees have adequate income, they are less likely to rely on safety net programs such as Medicaid, food assistance, and housing support,” the study said. It noted that a state-sponsored study in Colorado found that if retirees there had saved enough to replace 75% of their pre-retirement income, Colorado would spend $335 million less in state funds in 2020. “This amount would be almost a quarter of total state safety net spending on retirees, and would continue to grow each year as a larger portion of Colorado’s population retired.”

Wissel said, “A program could be similar to a 529 college savings plan.” Idaho already has a 529 college savings plan, a voluntary program under the state treasurer’s office that allows individuals and families to save for college costs in a tax-advantaged way.

“It’s got to be easy,” Wissel said. “It also needs to be voluntary, both for employees and for employers.”

Antonelli said, “Our population is aging rapidly, and over the next nine years, one in five Americans are going to be over age 65. Twenty-five percent of today’s 65-year-olds are going to live to more than 90. A baby born today is likely to live to 100.”

“Even a modest level of savings,” she said, “can make an enormous difference.”