Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Education, pot top list for Legislature

Internet access may prove to be stumbling block

Express Staff Writer

Education and marijuana topped the list of state legislative issues last week, as the Legislature continued to debate "Students Come First" and heard a bill that would decriminalize marijuana use and possession in medical cases.

Students come first?

The first public hearing before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee was held on Friday, when members of the public were invited to give testimony on schools Superintendent Tom Luna's proposed radical reshaping of state schools.

The plan, called "Students Come First," would increase class sizes and eliminate 770 teaching positions statewide.

These cuts would fund a performance-based pay schedule for teachers, raise the minimum salary for new teachers to $30,000 a year and provide technology such as laptops and web-based learning for high school students.

But the technology might not be enough to compensate for larger class sizes, and Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said technology can often be more costly than expected.

"Some of these schools have large computer centers, and they have a horrible time paying to keep the computers running," said Jaquet, adding that she was concerned about the costs of maintaining the laptops.

Both Jaquet and Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said much of the plan is still sketchy.

Pence said she is worried about the reality of attempting to eliminate jobs through attrition.

"In theory, it sounds really great, but I think there are going to be problems created, especially in our smaller districts," Pence said.

Jaquet also cited problems with smaller districts, saying that increasing class sizes in smaller rural schools may require combining grades to reach the proposed ratio of about 20 students per teacher.

The representatives said they are also concerned about the plan's requirement that all high school students take two courses per year online by 2015. Pence said that even college-level online courses have "abysmal" completion rates, while Jaquet said she is concerned about the ability of students to learn online.

"Some kids just don't learn that way," she said.

The two legislators said insufficient Internet access also may pose a roadblock for some students. Pence said many schools have Internet access via banks of plug-in connections, and increasing Internet and laptop use in classrooms would require expensive installation of wireless networks.

"I'm not sure they have the price tag right for that," she said.

Jaquet also expressed concern that students in rural areas may not have Internet access at home, limiting the usefulness of laptops and making it harder to complete online courses.

Medical marijuana

Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, introduced a bill in the Legislature last week that would allow medical users of marijuana to possess up to 2 ounces without criminal consequences. However, neither Pence nor Jaquet were optimistic about the bill's odds.

"I don't see that there's any chance of it passing," Pence said.

Even Trail admitted that the bill was not likely to make it through the session and that his main goal was to at least gain a hearing.

"I'm not betting any money on it this year," he said. "It's very controversial and takes time, but one can always be hopeful."

If the bill passes, users of medical marijuana would be required to register with the state and carry a registration identification card.

Trail said the program could potentially save the state $20 million dollars a year.

"Legal opiates that treat chronic pain are very expensive, highly addictive, toxic drugs," he said. "Medical marijuana could save the state money."

The savings estimates are based on the premise that marijuana is cheaper than alternatives such as oxycodone and morphine. Though chronic pain patients may use marijuana instead of prescribed narcotics, the bill states that Idaho would not be required to pay for the marijuana for Medicaid patients as it would the alternatives.

Medical users would be allowed to possess 2 ounces or less of marijuana as long as they are also carrying the card. Possession of 3 ounces or less of the drug for any purpose is now considered a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Users would still be prohibited from driving under the influence and smoking in public.

Health and Welfare

The high cost of health care will also be a topic of debate on Friday, when the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will hear public testimony on the budget for the Department of Health and Welfare.

The public will be invited to comment beginning at 8 a.m.

The department experienced closures and budget cuts last year, and Jaquet said "big cuts" in community services were likely to continue. Pence said the department will seek to cut roughly $25 million in programs, which will equate to about $100 million because of the loss of federal matching funds.

Some of the cuts could be offset by raising the cigarette tax by $1.25 per pack, a move Jaquet said would bring the state $51.1 million in revenue. The tax would mainly be used to offset the cost of tobacco-related illnesses in the Medicaid program, an estimated $83 million.

Forum for discussion

Jaquet, Pence and state Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, will start a legislative tour of the district with a public forum at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 28, at the Roosevelt Grille on Main Street in Ketchum.

The delegates will begin Saturday with an 8 a.m. breakfast at Oak Street Foods in Bellevue, followed by stops in Shoshone, Gooding, Wendell and Twin Falls.

Jaquet said the forums would begin with a short introduction and continue in a question-and-answer format.

Katherine Wutz:

Legislators on the move

District 25 legislators will be touring the area this week in an attempt to learn their constituents' concerns. Here's where the forums will be held:

- Friday, Jan. 28: 5:30 p.m., The Roosevelt Grill in Ketchum.

- Saturday, Jan. 29:

8 a.m., Oak Street Foods in Bellevue.

10:30 a.m., Cup of Joe in north Shoshone.

Noon, Gooding City Hall.

2:30 p.m., Wendell City Hall.

5 p.m., Elevation 486 in Twin Falls.

Forums will follow a question-and-answer format with a brief introduction.

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