Newfound respect puts spring in minority party’s step

This session has seen a drastic change for a Moscow Democrat.

LEWISTON TRIBUNEJanuary 21, 2014 

Even after seven terms in the Idaho Legislature, Moscow Rep. Shirley Ringo didn’t see this coming.

As one of four Democrats on the joint budget committee, Ringo has been a constant advocate for education, workforce development, adequate employee compensation and other issues important to her constituents.

Yet year after year, she finds herself struggling to make progress, her funding proposals shot down and her concerns seemingly dismissed by the GOP majority.

Until this session.

In the first few days of the session, Ringo once again expressed doubts about the governor’s approach to employee compensation — but instead of being beaten down, she suddenly found herself seconded by the committee co-chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who wondered if the Legislature had gotten away from its responsibility to provide a fair compensation system.

“I about fell out of my chair,” Ringo said of the unexpected support.

She’s not the only Statehouse Democrat who’s feeling a little giddy at the start of this session. Whether it’s improving employee compensation, the pull-back on prison privatization or revising House ethics rules, there have been multiple occasions this year when GOP officials seemed to acknowledge the wisdom and validity of viewpoints long held by the minority.

In his post-State of the State news conference, for example, Gov. Butch Otter said Idaho could have avoided the health care law sign-up problems if the state had begun building its own health insurance exchange sooner — something Democrats warned him about in 2012.

Similarly, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, suggested lawmakers pay more attention to the state’s worst-in-the-nation position in average wages and per-capita income and consider policy initiatives to reverse this “dubious distinction” — another issue Democrats have championed for years.

The upshot is that, in an election year that’s supposed to be dominated by Republican intra-party feuding, Democrats sense a slight easing in the political headwinds.

“It’s one of the strangest dynamics I’ve ever seen here,” Ringo said. “I’m wondering if they (Republicans) think they need to appeal to a more moderate population?”

BIPARTISANSHIP TALK CAN BE TOUCHY

The political implications of bipartisan cooperation make it almost a toxic subject for some, who worry challengers from the right may use it against Republicans incumbents in the upcoming primary.

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, who has spent the last four years trying to build relationships with his GOP colleagues, wouldn’t even discuss the shifting winds for fear it would appear Democrats are taking credit.

“I will say I’m glad to feel like we can get some things done,” he said. “And the ‘we’ is the important part of that.”

If lawmakers truly are finding common ground more often these days, House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston said that’s not something either party alone should crow about. Democrats have certainly tried to increase awareness on important issues, but forward progress depends on a joint effort.

“Do I give a little fist-bump? Yes. But it’s not that we did something — it’s that we’ve helped start a discussion,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the system works best when lawmakers focus more on the good of the state and less on who deserves the accolades.

“That’s just good governance, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he said.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean GOP leaders are going out of their way to praise the minority.

In his State of the State address, for example, Otter “enthusiastically endorsed” the work of his Task Force on Improving Education — yet failed to mention the task force was exactly the kind of comprehensive approach to education reform that Democrats begged for in 2011, when his administration was jamming the ill-fated Students Come First bills through the Legislature.

“There seems to be broad agreement in accepting and implementing the recommendations of the governor’s task force,” admitted Bedke, who carries a copy of the 20 recommendations around with him. “(But) I think that’s a recognition that most things in the education arena aren’t partisan.”

If there are other signs of “Kumbaya” this session, he said, they’re more likely the result of changing circumstances than any wholesale acceptance of Democratic values.

MORE MONEY MAKES AGREEING EASIER

The decision to recommend an increase in employee compensation is an example of how changing conditions can lead to different results: While Democrats called for raises almost every year, Republicans waited until revenues were on the upswing.

“I’m a businessman,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa. “If my business does well, I want to reward my employees and pass along the benefits. We’ve done well managing the state, so now we need to pass some of those benefits along to the employees who helped us achieve that success.”

Republicans and Demo-crats still have fundamentally different approaches to government. Given these differences, most Democrats aren’t expecting a breakout session.

“I’m happy we’re at least talking about some of these issues, and I have been surprised by how many seem to be getting traction,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. “Do I get a giddy feeling that maybe the majority is finally paying attention? Absolutely — but I’m holding my applause for the end.”

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