Minding Your Money

Pay close attention: The Idaho Statehouse is delving into the financial details of Medicaid, roads and state taxes

What's brewing in the Idaho legislature — that inscrutable, unpredictable devil's workshop? Are the legislators stirring up a medical health stew by adding millions of federal dollars to the state economy, and incidentally creating jobs and saving Idaho lives?

The Idaho Medical Association reports that there actually is support building in the legislature for the newly minted Healthy Idaho Plan, even among legislators who have resisted redesigning Medicaid.

Can it be that Republican legislators are waking up to the sheer size of the federal offering that they are letting slip through their fingers? The benefits to rejoining the Union are many: An estimated 104,000 additional low-income Idahoans would be covered by medical insurance, and the $173 million in state money to be saved annually is not mere bubble gum. That could be a useful addition to the public school appropriation.

Because of Idaho's very strange system of paying for large medical bills through county indigent programs, Idaho counties would save $1.275 million of property tax money over a 10-year period under the proposed Healthy Idaho Plan. That would bring good news to property taxpayers as well as the medically needy.

The legislature does appear to be taking seriously the reports from the Department of Transportation that Idaho's roads and bridges are in desperate need of repair. Legislators are told that there is a $281 million funding gap between money in hand and money needed to fix the ruts and keep the thousands of miles of highways safe across our sprawlin g state.

To meet the road-mending crisis, several transportation bills are in the pipeline. The gasoline tax was set at 25 cents a gallon in 1996 and hasn't been raised since. Almost 20 years later, the most straightforward bill would simply raise the gas tax 8 cents a gallon. This traditional approach appropriately treats the gasoline tax as a user tax, which drivers on the roads should continue to pay.

Also circulating is a nefarious plan to do away with the graduated income tax, raise the general sales tax to 7 cents, eliminate the sales tax on groceries and use the $150 million from the sales tax increase to fill the roads-and-bridges money gap.

In that plan, a flat 6.6 percent income tax would be leveled on all non-elderly Idaho citizens. According to the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, flattening the tax on personal and corporate income would raise the tax for all but the top 5 percent of Idaho's earners.

The present graduated income tax already favors higher earners. Flattening the income tax would give the top 1 percent of Idaho's earners, whose income is more than $427,400 per year, a windfall of nearly $5,000 in saved income tax payments. Ninety-five percent of Idaho's working citizens would be hit with a tax increase.

Why give not just a tax break, but a big tax break, to the rich?

Since it's a tax shift, the tax burden is simply moved to the lower- and middle-earning groups. Such a shift would not generate additional money. The $150 million would be produced by the cent increase in the sales tax. Dedicating $150 million to maintaining roads and bridges is a poorly disguised attempt to justify the tax gift to the wealthy.

Please believe me when I call this a bad, bad, bad idea! Idahoans — please send your legislators a strong message of opposition to flattening the income tax, along with your support for a Medicaid redesign.

On the let-us-not-forget record: The fact the Idaho House State Affairs Committee finally held a hearing on the Add The Words issue did not earn them any stars in their crowns. Every Republican on the committee voted against the measure to add statutory protection for the sadly vulnerable group of Idahoans who fall into the category of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The request has been to simply add four words to the Human Rights section of the Idaho Code — "sexual orientation" and "gender identity." Our gay friends and countless individuals across Idaho will continue to have no legal protection from discrimination in the workplace and the marketplace, or in housing.

So the two days of emotional testimony in the statehouse turned out to be an empty exercise, a bone tossed to the hungry crowd, a tease. But the stories of mistreatment, physical danger, injustice and bullying of gay and transgender couples and individuals touched even the coldest of hearts.

Let's hope that Add the Words advocates will keep on trying until new, younger legislators see the need for equal treatment for all. In time, the Idaho Code should reflect the will of the majority of Idahoans who now support adding the four simple, star-crossed words.

As Martin Luther King reminded us: A time will come when "Justice will run down like water." ♦

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