David Adler: Incumbents’ interests do not trump people’s

Special to the Idaho StatesmanJanuary 9, 2014 

David Adler

The working assumption that this will be a short, relatively uncontroversial legislative session may prove to be true in the end, but a truncated assembly, spurred by incumbents’ desire to return to the campaign trail, may not effectively serve the “people’s business” — the very rationale for the creation of government.

Idaho faces serious challenges and compelling issues. The Democrats’ response to Governor Otter’s State of the State address brought these concerns into sharp relief. As Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, noted, Idaho ranks 50th in wages per capita income, 50th in school support and claims the highest percentage of minimum wage workers in the nation. She was correct in her assessment that “these measurements — education and household economy — are related.”

If Idaho’s legislators can begin to seriously address these conditions — the state of the state — in 75 days or so, more power to them. We all appreciate governmental efficiency. But if remedies, programs and policies necessary to spare Idaho from what Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, has justly characterized as a “dubious distinction,” require more time, then our elected representatives should remain in Boise, committing the time and energy necessary to right the ship of state.

In this election season, in which many of the GOP legislators face primary challenges in May, it’s understandable that incumbents want to return to the campaign trail to defend their records and seats. Sen. Stennett hit the mark when she declared that we “cannot just wait until next year when no one is up for re-election. Idaho families deserve leadership and opportunities now.” What’s the point of convening the Legislature, if it’s not to meet the needs of the electorate?

In his address to legislators, gathered in what he called the “people’s house,” Gov. Otter rightly touted the virtues of governmental “transparency and accountability.” Where those virtues are found wanting, they must be instilled and encouraged, for they represent an indispensable means of winning trust and consent.

Governmental transparency, central to accountability and the ultimate success of the republic is, at this juncture, critical to the efforts of Idaho to remove its “dubious” distinctions. It can be practiced through resorting to simple, tried and true mechanisms: full, accessible hearings, lengthy and robust discussions and debates in the legislative arena, and thorough explanations from lawmakers about their positions and reasoning on any given bill or proposal.

Legislative leaders should schedule enough time for debate to satisfy citizens’ expectations of penetrating examinations of the pressing education, economic and social issues confronting the Gem State. The Governor’s Education Task Force offered 20 recommendations to improve education in Idaho. Discussion of those proposals, which point to the economic success and future of Idaho, should not be restricted by legislators’ eagerness to return to the business of campaigning.

Medicaid expansion, rejected by Gov. Otter, deserves a fair hearing and substantive, vigorous debate in House and Senate chambers. The financial stakes are too high to ignore. The moral imperative of providing health care to some 100,000 Idahoans cannot be dismissed. Let Idahoans hear from their representatives the pros and cons of this program. Let the citizenry examine their reasoning and, as a consequence, hold government officials accountable.

The forthcoming campaigns, including the primaries in May and the general election in November, will be more enlightening, more substantive and the choices clearer, if legislators in this session commit the time and energy necessary to addressing the critical issues confronting Idaho.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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