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Build Back Better: What’s in it for Idaho?

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From housing vouchers to child tax credits to health insurance program boosts, many corners of Idaho could see an infusion of federal dollars if the U.S. Senate passes President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

Legislation includes hundreds of provisions that could affect local children and families

The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed the Build Back Better Act, a massive piece of legislation that includes funding for many social programs and clean energy, on Nov. 19. It awaits consideration by the U.S. Senate, where it is unclear how the bill might be amended or cut in order to win over a majority of senators with a 50-50 partisan split.

But some of the finer details of the bill are also unclear, as polls have shown many Americans don’t know what the bill entails. It is a massive piece of legislation with many moving parts, making it difficult to grasp the full picture of what is included.

According to previous reporting from States Newsroom, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated the bill would spend about $1.7 trillion over the course of a decade. Another $500 billion in tax breaks is estimated within the bill, pushing it to about $2.2 trillion over 10 years.

Many different programs and provisions are included in that high price tag, and some effects would be felt nationwide if it is passed, such as four weeks of paid family leave for all workers.

At the state level, policy advocates say several pieces of the bill could have a major effect in Idaho, including some lesser-known provisions contained in the 2,000-page bill. From housing vouchers to summer school lunch programs to agriculture tax credits, many corners of Idaho could see an infusion of federal dollars.

Billions would include funding for Idaho National Laboratory and climate-smart agriculture

One of the biggest components of the bill is $555 billion to reduce emissions and encourage the development of clean energy alternatives, along with funding for infrastructure that would increase resilience against natural disasters related to climate change, such as wildfire and flooding.

According to estimates from the White House, Idaho experienced 11 extreme weather events between 2010 and 2020, at a cost of up to $2 billion. Proponents say the framework would set the United States on a course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and it would be the largest investment in clean energy in American history.

“… The framework will create a new Civilian Climate Corps that will enlist a diverse generation of Idahoans in conserving our public lands, bolstering community resilience, and addressing the changing climate, all while putting good-paying union jobs within reach,” the White House said in a recent fact sheet.

Ryan McGoldrick, program coordinator for climate, clean energy and transportation programs at Conservation Voters of Idaho, said the investment is needed because the world is at a “tipping point” with climate change. Cities across Idaho, including Boise, Moscow and Ketchum, have created clean energy plans that will be boosted by the Build Back Better Act if it passes, he said.

“We have a ton of cities and communities that have committed to clean energy, but they need some of that federal investment to make sure they can achieve those goals in a way that doesn’t cost residents a lot of money,” McGoldrick said.

According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the $555 billion in the overall bill includes:

  • $220 billion for investments in clean energy and climate resilience
  • $190 billion to establish or expand clean energy and electric tax credits
  • $60 billion to establish or expand clean fuel and vehicle tax credits
  • $75 billion to establish or expand other climate-related tax benefits
  • $10 billion to enact infrastructure and related tax breaks

The tax incentives for producers and purchasers of wind, solar and nuclear power could lower the yearly energy bill of the average American by $500 per year by 2030, McGoldrick said.
Idaho actually has one of the cleanest energy grids in the country because it is largely dependent on hydropower, McGoldrick said, but there is still room for improvement.

“We need to get to a 100% clean grid, and investing in renewable (energy) is the best way to do that,” McGoldrick said. “We have that advantage (with hydro), but it doesn’t mean we’re done. So many emissions are not from our grid — it’s from transportation, heating and cooling with natural gas, and all of those things need to be transitioned away from.”

The bill also includes funding for national laboratories to explore new technology and innovation for energy, which would include funding for the Idaho National Laboratory in eastern Idaho.

There are also provisions in the bill for “climate smart agriculture,” including a $25-per-acre payment for the use of cover crops, which are used to protect soil rather than to be harvested in agriculture fields, as well as a low-carbon tax credit for biofuels.

Local farmers, such as a vineyard owner in Wilder, use cover crops as natural pest control that also provides more habitat for bees and other creatures.

Idaho would receive $571 million for child care over three fiscal years

The bill focuses heavily on programs that would benefit children and families, including a six-year program to provide universal pre-kindergarten education and establish an affordable child care program. Over the course of three fiscal years, Idaho would receive more than $571 million for child care provisions in the bill, according to estimates from the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The average annual cost of child care for a toddler in Idaho is $8,397, according to the White House, and a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce report showed Idaho’s economy loses $479 million per year through absences and employee turnover related to a lack of available and affordable child care. The bill would cap the cost of child care to no more than 7% of a family’s annual income.

Eric Medina, a policy associate for the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, said after fiscal year 2025, the federal government’s reimbursement for program costs will drop to 90%, and states will be able to opt in to the program. If Idaho were to choose not to opt in, the funds would be designated for other states, but local entities could still apply for a separate fund of $3.6 billion in federal dollars that would provide local child care program support.

“Sometimes lawmakers are dragging their feet when it comes to funding children’s education,” Medina said, but he hopes Idaho lawmakers would choose to accept the federal dollars as a whole.

Children’s health care program and Medicaid would see big boosts in Idaho

There is also a significant portion of the bill dedicated to health care, particularly for children. Logan Dennis, a policy associate with Boise nonprofit organization Idaho Voices for Children, said the bill includes a permanent extension of the children’s health insurance program, better known as CHIP. Under existing law, the program has to be reauthorized by Congress every 10 years. It would also include the option to increase income eligibility levels to allow more families to qualify.

“In terms of health care, this bill almost represents a reorientation in how we value children’s health,” Dennis said. “Research shows that children who have access to health care do better in school, have less chronic illnesses, and are more likely to go on (to higher education).”

A funding boost for Medicaid is also included in the bill. Medicaid payments have historically been covered 90% by federal funds and 10% by state funds, while the Build Back Better Act would increase that split to 93% covered by federal funds.

“That’s a significant funding boost, which means that our state share conversely decreases,” Dennis said. “Now we’re going to be able to continue to fund that program at an even lower cost to the state.”

One-third of Idaho families using child tax credit for necessities, policy associate says

Medina said one of the most meaningful pieces of the legislation is the child tax credit, which was increased from $2,000 to $3,000 under the American Rescue Plan Act. While the credit would return to $2,000 after the 2022 fiscal year, the Build Back Better plan would remove income requirements for receiving the credit. That change would make approximately 27 million more children and their families who earn little to no income eligible for the credit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That would be especially significant to people of color, who disproportionately did not qualify for the credit before the American Rescue Plan bill was passed. It would also restore eligibility for children who do not have a Social Security number because of their immigration status, allowing families to use Tax Identification Numbers instead.

Medina said he’s following the child tax credit portion of the bill closely and hoping it isn’t cut by senators who are opposed to removing income requirements.

“As soon as there’s work requirements, 26 to 27 million kids will no longer be eligible,” Medina said. “One-third of families here in Idaho are using that credit to be able to buy groceries and school supplies. That’s one in three families who would not be able to access bare bones needs.”

Kristin Matthews, Policy and Division Support bureau chief for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said caseloads for Idaho’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have consistently declined month over month in the past year. Matthews said multiple factors go into determining eligibility for the program, however, so there’s no way to know if it is directly related to more federal assistance.

School meals would extend into summer for thousands of Idaho students

The legislation would also extend free and reduced school meals to include summer grocery benefits. It would also expand eligibility to allow more schools with large numbers of low-income students to provide meals at no charge to all students, including creating a statewide implementation option.

According to the Idaho State Department of Education, 36.1% of Idaho families qualify for free and reduced lunch. The bill would make an additional 14,000 students in Idaho eligible during the school year and provide 125,436 students with resources to purchase food over the summer, according to estimates from the White House.

The change would build on the program established for pandemic supplemental nutrition assistance, which was created to help provide grocery benefits to families to replace meals missed while schools and child care families were closed or meeting remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would make $65 per month in summer benefits available to low-income children nationwide during the summers of 2023 and 2024, since the pandemic program will continue through the summer of 2022.

Vouchers for affordable housing would affect 1,300 Idaho households

Another portion of the bill especially relevant to Idaho surrounds housing. Many corners of the state, including the Treasure Valley and North Idaho, have reported a lack of affordable housing as the average price for a home has increased rapidly in the past two years.

Kendra Knighten, a policy associate for Idaho Voices for Children and the Idaho Asset Building Network, said the Build Back Better Act includes historic investments in key affordable housing programs that are highly effective at promoting housing stability and decreasing homelessness.

Those investments include $25 billion for the Housing Choice Voucher Program and $15 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund.

“The voucher program … helps families with modest incomes be able to access homes on the private rental market by covering the difference between what the family can afford and what their fair market rent is,” Knighten said. “These vouchers are highly effective at increasing stability.”

The funding would amount to 1,300 vouchers for households experiencing instability in Idaho, she said, which would include approximately 1,500 women, 1,000 people under the age of 18, 600 people living with disabilities and 200 seniors 62 and older.

Under the existing program, Idahoans wait an average of 27 months to receive a voucher, Knighten said.

The effectiveness of the voucher program is dependent on the availability of affordable homes, though, which is why officials say the funding for the national trust fund is important as well. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates the $15 billion would provide the building or preservation of 150,000 homes across the country, with an estimate of nearly $53 million allocated to Idaho.

“It has the potential to be incredibly transformational here in Idaho,” Knighten said. “For the most part, Idaho has relied primarily on federal funding to solve housing concerns, so an infusion would play a pretty significant role in addressing it.”