Ending COVID emergency shortsighted

By Idaho District 1 Senator Jim Woodward

Your North Idaho legislators have gone south for the winter again. Representative Dixon, Representative Scott and I arrived in Boise this past week for the first session of the 66th Idaho Legislature.

My first few days were spent in a committee which projects tax revenues for the upcoming year. Per our Idaho Constitution, we cannot spend more than we take in. To set a balanced budget for the coming year, we have to make our best guess of what income tax and sales tax collections will be next year. The process involves hearing from many segments of the business community, an association representing taxpayers, the Idaho Tax Commission, and economists, both private sector and government. My most significant takeaway from those hearings is that we truly are in a great position in Idaho. Unemployment is low, the economy is strong, and our state government finances are in order.

As a result of our Idaho values and the position we’ve placed ourselves in, the biggest challenge moving forward is managing growth as many folks around the country look to join us here.

The kickoff to every legislative session is the Governor’s State of the State address. This year, Governor Little has laid out a path forward which I consider a well-balanced, three-pronged approach.

First, the plan addresses tax relief both in the short term and long term. Second, the plan makes significant capital investments throughout Idaho including transportation projects and broadband infrastructure. Finally, the plan also adds to our rainy-day funds, reflecting our fiscally conservative Idaho approach. Details of the proposal can be found at gov.idaho.gov.

The next step in bringing these improvements to Idahoans is the legislative process. With 105 members to the legislative team, there are always many ideas and sometimes a bit of wrangling, but the end result is typically a reflection of our cross-section here in the State.

The windstorm this past week caused severe damage to the electrical transmission and distribution system in the area. We are used to an occasional outage due to downed trees on our distribution lines. Electrical providers budget for the small to medium sized events. When the high voltage transmission lines are damaged or storm damage is widespread, the costs become significant.

Part of the response to an incident like this is the declaration of an emergency.

The declaration recognizes the event significance and makes more assets available to remedy the situation. Boundary County, Bonner County and Kootenai County have declared an emergency in regard to the windstorm. If the damage is costly enough, a state declaration will be issued which allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial assistance.

FEMA operates with our federal taxpayer dollars. We pay into the program. I think it makes sense to utilize our own federal money to assist our local response.

By the same logic and method, in the State of Idaho, we are currently using FEMA dollars to respond to the pandemic. National Guardsmen are mobilized to assist overworked hospitals, conduct COVID testing, and distribute the new vaccines. In addition, FEMA funding is covering the cost of Personal Protective Equipment for hospitals and nursing homes. In just the first three months of 2021, Idaho will receive $20 million of our federal tax dollars for these purposes. If we don’t use our federal tax dollars to pay these bills, we will end up paying a second time with our state tax dollars.

We are all frustrated with the pandemic and ready to move on. It has caused inconvenience, discomfort, sickness, and loss of life. I have heard from many who would like to lift the state of emergency.

I want to make sure we all understand that lifting the emergency will result in loss of access to our current FEMA federal dollars, which will increase the burden on our doctors, nurses, and other front line people who are already stretched to capacity. Lifting the emergency declaration will not change the health restrictions currently in place. The health restrictions are authorized under a different section of Idaho law.

Thank you for the opportunity to represent the community at the state level. I look forward to hearing concerns and input on legislative actions. The easiest way to track legislation is on the legislative website.  Email is the best way to reach me; jwoodward@senate.idaho.gov.