Little Capital for a Day

Idaho Gov. Brad Little opens his first “Capital for a Day” session on Tuesday at Emmett City Hall.

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EMMETT, Idaho — When Gov. Brad Little was asked at his first “Capital for a Day” session on Tuesday if Idahoans, like people in other nearby states, are looking toward marijuana legalization, he said, “If they did, they elected the wrong guy as governor.”

“People ask me all the time why we’re growing so fast,” Little said. “I say it’s because we’re not Portland, we’re not Seattle.”

Little said he believes unintended consequences of legalized recreational marijuana include problems hiring reliable construction workers, questions about levels at which driving is impaired, concerns about children getting access to edibles, and more.

“I’m dead serious,” he said during a break in the daylong session, at which he took questions from citizens on everything from education and health care to transportation funding, opioid abuse, irrigation and paying for growth. “There are so many unknowns.”

Little said he’s been hearing from both individuals and businesses that they’re moving to Idaho to avoid the legal recreational marijuana that’s become the norm in other states.

“There’s no question about it, that that’s part of our growth,” he said.

Little brought more than a dozen state officials and agency heads with him to Emmett, his hometown, for the “Capital for a Day” session, and pledged to do the same around the state. His predecessor, former Gov. Butch Otter, held more than 100 of the sessions over his 12 years in office, many of them in far-flung small Idaho towns.

“While the Capitol, the seat of state government, remains in Boise,” Little said, “I plan to visit and conduct business in every corner of the state during my administration.”

Here are some of the topics he and his cabinet members covered in the Emmett session:

MEDICAID EXPANSION

Little said the Medicaid expansion “sideboards” bill that he signed into law “wasn’t a perfect bill.” It requires the state to apply for a raft of federal waivers, on everything from mandatory work requirements to mental health to family planning.

“My guess is we won’t get all those waivers,” Little told the audience, though he said some, like the Institutes for Mental Disease waiver, are things that “every state’s getting.”

“There’s obviously going to be some adjustments because we’re going to apply for waivers that we’re not going to get,” Little said.

He then called on Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen to discuss the process. Jeppesen said there are four federal waivers the state will apply for right away: The IMD waiver, the waiver to keep Idahoans from 100 to 138 percent of the federal poverty level on the state insurance exchange instead of switching to expanded Medicaid unless they choose to switch, the family planning referral waiver and the work requirements waiver.

Jeppesen said all 21 states that applied for the IMD waiver were approved.

“We actually anticipate that one to go through pretty easily,” Jeppesen said.

He said the waiver process won’t affect the Jan. 1, 2020 start date.

“We’ll see where those negotiations go,” Jeppesen said.

Little and Jeppesen fielded several questions about mental health and funding for recovery centers around the state for people who are recovering from addiction. That ties right in with Medicaid expansion, both said; this year, state lawmakers provided one-time funding for recovery centers.

“There are a lot of balls in the air,” Little said. “We have to address this statewide. … I want to see what’s covered by Medicaid and what’s not going to be covered, and then what’s the next logical step.”

Jeppesen said, “What we really want to do is use Medicaid expansion as a fulcrum,” to look at the full spectrum of treatment for mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

“We’ve had a shortage of services in the state,” he said, but now that Idaho is expanding Medicaid, it should improve. “We’ll be looking at a comprehensive plan,” he said.

EDUCATION

Numerous questions from the overflow crowd focused on education, including how Idaho will address its current gaps in early childhood education.

“For me, we have a constitutional and a moral obligation to educate our kids,” Little said, “and if we don’t get ‘em reading proficiently at the end of third grade, we’re not doing our job.”

He said two of his top priorities this year were raising starting teacher pay and doubling state funding for literacy programs for kindergarten through the third grade.

“The Legislature was very supportive of those two efforts,” he said.

Little said one important accomplishment has been agreeing on how to measure literacy, through a newly revamped Idaho Reading Indicator state test. He said the increased literacy funding offers a “smorgasbord” of options to school districts to address their needs and sounded a theme that he returned to often throughout the day: his desire to maintain local control.

State schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra told the crowd that she kept her son out of school until he was 6, because she felt that though he was academically ready, he wasn’t socially ready. She said she wants parents and local school districts to have options, not mandates, when it comes to early childhood education.

PRISONS AND RECIDIVISM

Asked about Idaho’s growing prison population and preventing the same offenders from returning again and again, Little said, “Had we implemented the plan that we have, had we implemented our opioid prescription management plan that we have today 15 years ago and been ahead of that, Josh wouldn’t have near the workload that he has right now,” referring to state Corrections Director Josh Tewalt.

Little said in his opinion, “We were focused like a laser on methamphetamine, and the opioid grew” at a huge rate. He noted that Idaho’s recidivism problem is related to substance abuse.

“We’ve got to get our arms around this whole problem,” he said. “We have to get to these young kids. We have to have more counselors in the schools than we have now to recognize these problems.”

Idaho needs bed space so its corrections programs work, he said, and it also needs to focus in areas ranging from early childhood to Medicaid to address the problem.

Tewalt said the problem is not just capacity; it’s outcomes.

“We’re trying to be thoughtful in addressing both,” he said. “We have to get at those reasons why folks were unable to be successful.”

When offenders come out of prison, they could have the best services, but if they don’t have a safe place to live, if they don’t have transportation, if they don’t have a job, they’ll fail, Tewalt said. That’s why the state is now focusing on “re-entry centers” in its new additional prison beds.

“It’s about reducing crime,” he said. “If we can help these folks be successful, it’s going to make a lot of our jobs easier.”

Another audience member told Little he suffered a work injury, launching him into a cycle that led to six years of opioid addiction, a difficult recovery, and inadequate services along the way — and he still suffers from pain and disability.

“It’s not right that a person has to live with pain the rest of their life, and the government won’t do the right thing over it,” he said. “It’s not right that you do what your foreman tells you to do and you’re messed up for life.”

Little said the state is, “thank God,” beginning to get its arms around the problem of overuse of opioids and better and different treatments for pain.

“We’re tracking the over-prescription of opioids,” he said. “I wish we’d a had it 15 years ago, and we’d be better off than we are today.”

Little told the citizen that as far as his health care needs, once Medicaid expansion kicks in next year, it should help him.

At the close of the session at Emmett City Hall, which ran through the morning, broke for lunch, then took up again in the afternoon, Little thanked his cabinet members and staff, and said, “But I really want to thank Emmett. This has been a pretty long journey for me.” He noted fellow members of the local high school’s class of ‘72 in the audience.

“Emmett’s a big part of who I am,” he said. “The people that have been in this room today are a lot of how I ground-truth the decisions that come across my desk.”

The local library presented him with a copy of “Adventures in English Literature” that showed that a young Brad Little checked it out in 1970.

Little praised the audience for coming out and participating.

“If participation all over the United States was like it was here, this country would be on a better trajectory than we are right now,” he declared.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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