With the help of majority leadership, Republican Speaker Scott Bedke assigns committees and picks the chairmen. Though committees as a whole pass legislation, chairmen have a lot of power over the bills that come to — and do or don’t pass —their committees.
Those appointments give the speaker “tremendous power,” said retired Boise State political science professor Jim Weatherby.
Though Bedke left most remaining chairmen in place, he made a statement filling some open chairs.
Last year’s Health and Welfare chairwoman, now-retired Rep. Janice McGeachin, opposed an Idaho insurance exchange and all other parts of the Affordable Care Act. A bill to establish a health insurance exchange crafted by Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, never got a print hearing in her committee.
Former Speaker Lawerence Denney also opposes the act. After the Supreme Court upheld the law last summer, he and Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, urged Idaho to reject it across the board, including the exchange and Medicaid expansion.
Gov. Butch Otter will release his decision on a state exchange this week.
No matter what the governor decides, the Health and Welfare Committee needs a strong, sensible leader to guide Idaho through the transition, Bedke said.
Bedke appointed Wood — a retired physician — to chairman of Health and Welfare.
“His expertise is recognized and respected, and he brings a pragmatic approach to solving these problems,” he said.
Former Speaker Bruce Newcomb, who led the House for eight years, said while the Legislature serves the whole state, the speaker has the power to push bills that matter to him.
Take aquifer recharge, a major issue in southern Idaho and a top priority for Bedke, an Oakley rancher.
Bedke appointed Denney, a farmer, as chairman of the Resources & Conservation Committee.
“As a farmer, it should go without saying he knows the value of a stable water supply,” Bedke said.
But if things aren’t going the way Bedke wants, expect him to step in, Newcomb said.
“For the Magic Valley, the water issues are the main thing,” he said. “I think Scott being speaker really protects that.”
Weatherby said Bedke might not be as aggressive on his agenda in his first term, but that can change as speakers spend more time in the job.
“I think they can become more assertive,” he said.
Some members of his caucus criticized Denney for what they saw as punishing members who didn’t agree with him.
After the 2011 Legislative session, he removed Reps. Leon Smith and Tom Trail from committee chairmanships. In 2012, he attempted to remove retired Rep. Dolores Crow from the state redistricting commission.
Wood said he thinks Bedke won’t be as heavy-handed.
“Rather than legislation being driven from the top down, legislation will percolate up through the two caucuses,” Wood said.
Newcomb, who also hails from Cassia County, said he has high hopes for Bedke as speaker.
“Scott’s a smart man,” Newcomb said.
But, Newcomb added, Bedke will have to be tough when he needs to be.
“He’s got to show everybody who’s boss,” Newcomb said. “And I expect he’ll do that.”