Idaho governors used to take the word of candidates for key boards and commissions. If they said they were independent, that would do the trick.
After the Idaho Republican Party won a federal lawsuit overturning Idahos open primary system on constitutional grounds, the Legislature enacted a party registration law. Now, two top Republicans Gov. Butch Otter and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa are scratching their heads over what they say is an unintended consequence of the newly closed GOP primary.
Three of the 22 boards that must be balanced between parties got out of whack because three independents and a Democrat registered and voted as Republicans in May. They include the Board of Environmental Quality, a rule-making body with far-reaching impact on business and ordinary Idahoans. Also off balance are the Commission on Aging, which advises the Office on Aging, and the Economic Advisory Council, which advises the Department of Commerce.
For the first time since statehood, the party chosen by primary voters is public record. Of 117 members of the boards and commissions, 10 switched from the affiliation they declared at the time of their appointment by the governor.
My position is they were what they were when I appointed them, said Otter. But are they properly constituted? I dont know the answer to that.
Otters lawyers are speaking to Attorney General Lawrence Wasdens lawyers. Ysursa, who tracks appointments to Idahos 180 boards, commissions and councils, says the matter needs the Legislatures attention.
In 1944, the Idaho Constitution was amended to say no more than two of the four members of the State Tax Commission shall belong to the same political party. In subsequent years, party balance requirements were applied to many of the states most powerful boards.
There was a wariness on the part of both political parties about having boards and commissions stacked with the enemy, said Mike Nugent, who heads the Legislatures bill-drafting office.
INDEPENDENTS IN NAME ONLY?
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said he anticipated the problem, though it got little attention during debate on the party registration law.
Theres lots of us who felt the claim of being an independent was not fully founded and that many of these pseudo-independents were actually Republicans, Rusche said. Having to declare rips off the veil.
Rusche isnt calling for Otter to kick any appointees off the boards. Im not jumping up and down, and I dont know that its necessarily good to do a wholesale clearing. But I do think its another consequence that was not considered when the closed primary was railroaded through.
Some judges, state workers and journalists have said they skipped the primary because of the party registration requirement. Ysursa attributed a record-low turnout 24 percent of those registered and 16 percent of the voting-age population to the new law.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, helped negotiate the closed primary law. Hill said he has sympathy for independents who had always been able to vote in primaries without creating a public record. But he wishes members of boards and commissions had considered the fallout of switching party affiliation.
We put them into an awkward situation, he said. But is it right that someone declares themselves a party affiliation for purposes of choosing that partys candidates and then considers themselves not a member of that party for all other purposes?
Dr. Richard Roberge of Caldwell has contributed to the campaigns of every GOP governor since 1994. His medical partner was former GOP lawmaker Bob Ring. But Roberge told Otter he was an independent when he appointed him to the Board of Health & Welfare.
Roberge, 76, said hes voted in every election since he became eligible in 1958 and wasnt about to miss his first because of the new law.
I had very strong opinions about some of the people on the ballot, Roberge said, adding that he objects to the new law and still considers himself an independent, although he is now registered as a Republican. Talk about 1984. Good Lord, theyre into your thoughts.
Margie Watson spent 22 years as a nonpartisan elected official in Parma, including four as mayor. I vote both sides of the fence, Watson said.
But she campaigned for GOP candidate Matthew Faulks in his challenge to Sen. Monty Pearce, R-Fruitland, and registered as a Republican. So now I have a tattoo on my forehead.
Watson is on the seven-member Economic Advisory Council. The panel is now all-Republican, after Watson and Corey Smith of Idaho Falls switched from independent.
I did want to vote, explained Smith. I tend to lean Republican, but I dont feel fully categorized that way.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little vets appointments for Otter, as Otter did for former GOP Gov. Phil Batt. Little said Otter takes seriously the legal requirements that limit the majority partys power on the 22 select boards.
Typically, the law says one party may not have a supermajority. Four members of seven-member boards may be from one party, but not more. That allows for independents, a growing sector of the electorate that now outnumbers self-identified Democrats. Little said Otter toes a careful line in picking independents.
The governor has said if you dont think theyre really a ticket splitter, then were not complying with the intent of the law, Little said. The intent is to make sure that a wider range of values are represented on those boards.
Otter said he tries to find conservative Democrats who more closely reflect his values, but he respects the notion of multiple viewpoints. For example, Otter said, he was among Republicans skeptical of creating an environmental regulatory board that could be dominated by liberals in a Democratic administration.
The only way you could get conservatives like me to agree is to say, OK, the board is not going to be made up of seven Democrats. Youre still going to have your voice at the table, Otter said.
When Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus returned to Idaho after four years as U.S. interior secretary and got elected governor a third time, he had help from some prominent Republicans who called themselves Republicans for Andrus.
Andrus appointed three of them Larry Jackson, Betty Lou Donnelly and Nolan Young to the Tax Commission, Judicial Council and Personnel commission, respectively. In 1988, the GOP-controlled Senate rejected the nominations, saying the three werent good Republicans.
After Andrus retired in 1995, ending a 24-year string of Democratic governors, Republicans made big changes. By 1999, the seven-member Fish & Game Commission had nary a Democrat, with four Republicans and three independents.
Then-Senate Democratic Leader Clint Stennett tried to block two independent nominees, saying they were secretly GOP. But with just eight votes in the 35-member Senate, he failed.
One of those independents is now Republican Rep. Marc Gibbs of Grace. Gibbs says he truly considered himself an independent during two terms on Fish & Game. He supported Democrat Larry EchoHawk for governor in 1994, and his dad was a Democratic county commissioner. But Gibbs told Stennett that if he ever ran for office in heavily GOP Caribou County, it would be as a Republican.
Now, Gibbs said, hed like to see the GOP allow independents to vote in their primary. Failing that, he said he sees only one other remedy: repealing the requirement for party balance.
I truly think that most of those boards would be better served with the best people, regardless of politics, Gibbs said.
MORE MODEST REFORM
Otter Chief of Staff David Hensley, a lawyer, is in talks with Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane about the problem. We understand and we are working on the issue with these boards/commissions to make sure we are adhering to and upholding the law, Hensley said.
Said Attorney General Wasden: I dont want to step out there until I know the legal issue a little better.
Rep. Rusche, the top House Democrat, rejected the idea of abandoning a partisan balance requirement that is grounded in the state Constitution. Having additional points of view is not a bad thing when youre trying to implement public policy.
Sen. Hill, who runs the Senate GOP, agrees. I think we need that political diversity so things are not overlooked.
Ysursa, the states top election official, said about 20 states have party registration laws, and their appointment policies merit study.
Ive got to believe this is not unique to Idaho, he said. I think we need a policy set by the Legislature based on everybodys input.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics