Buffeted by heavy pressure, 16 first-year lawmakers came together Wednesday to offer a new bill they say will win their pivotal block of votes for a state-run insurance exchange.
House Bill 179 bolsters legislative oversight and prompted the 16 to commit to back Gov. Butch Otter in making Idaho one of a handful of Republican-controlled states opting to run their own online marketplace, rather than default to a federal exchange.
With a record-sized freshman class, the 16 votes represent a big chunk of the 36 votes necessary for House passage. All 13 Democrats are expected to vote for the state plan. House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said the news is a major boost for Otter.
"I'm really quite proud of them," said Hill, R-Rexburg, an exchange supporter. "Tough issues are usually decided by blocks. There's courage in numbers."
Rep. Rick Youngblood of Nampa explained the group's genesis: "We all were in a balancing act, every day walking that fine line: Are we over here or are we over there? Constituents calling every day or emailing, saying 'Don't vote for this,' or 'Do vote for this.' Our business leaders saying, 'Do vote for this.' That's where we came from."
Rep. Kelley Packer of McCammon said some freshmen received "direct threats to our political careers if we don't vote a certain way." Packer declined to disclose who promised to back challengers against them in the 2014 primary, but said the 16 "felt we needed to make a stand and do what's right ... regardless of the target on our backs."
Rep. Tom Dayley, R-Boise, said he'd been agonizing, but found solace in James Madison's writing in the Federalist Papers. "Obamacare is with us," he said. "The better administration is an Idaho administration. When has the federal government given Idaho proof of a better administration?"
The freshmen acted quietly and without consulting senior lawmakers until the final hours.
"This was a done deal before I was informed," said House Health & Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, who learned of what some are calling the "Gang of 16" Monday night. "They're not being stampeded, they're doing their homework, they're asking questions. And once they come to a decision, they're saying, 'This is my space. This is my decision.' "
Wood said the 16 votes make House passage likely, unless another significant block of votes switches sides. Hill said he expects a close vote in the Senate.
Speaker Bedke, R-Oakley, praised the 16 for crafting their own solution.
It's difficult for newbies to immediately grasp who to trust, Bedke said. "But they do know that they can go back to the homogeneous group of all these new guys. They reacted in a very natural way and bonded together as freshmen."
The group's plan was unveiled in Wood's committee Wednesday by 31-year-old Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d'Alene. At a news conference, all 16 said they will vote for Otter's Senate Bill 1042 if HB 179 passes.
"Our legislation gives us the ability to act in the best interests of our citizens now, while reserving the power to pull the plug on any collaboration if our ability to fight for individual rights is regulated away," Malek said. "We refuse to own Obamacare, but step up without reservation to the responsibility of protecting Idaho sovereignty and individual rights."
The freshmen's measure puts two lawmakers on the exchange's 18-member governing board as nonvoting members; aims to ensure the federal government pays for all operational costs under the Affordable Care Act; allows the state to withdraw from the exchange; requires legislative review of fee increases; requires open bidding on contracts; and calls for board meetings to be televised or live-streamed.
Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, said the biggest surprise of his first weeks as a lawmaker is the "magnitude of the collision between reality and idealism. Idealism is still our goal, but we have to deal with the reality."
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, attended the freshmen's news conference. "This is good work from good legislators who are saying 'we want to have our voice heard so we want to figure out a way to make it louder,'" he said.
Opponents reacted cautiously. House GOP Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude said he'll study HB 179 to see if it might prompt him to review his position. "These are good additions," said Vander Woude, of rural Ada County. "It's a starting point but I need to be convinced."
Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he will review the new bill before saying whether it's persuasive. Crane also recalled his role as a freshman helping defeat Otter's fuel tax increases in 2009. "I don't know if I agree with the policy, but I applaud their effort."
Wayne Hoffman, a lobbyist for the leading group opposing Otter, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said: "The legislation presented by the freshmen makes a bad bill better, but it is still a bad bill. My hope is to show them a better approach that gets them closer to our mutual goal of protecting Idahoans from an overreaching federal government."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics