Barely into March, GOP legislative leaders eye adjournment

Their goal of going home in 2 1⁄2 weeks to face voters appears within reach; Democrats aren’t happy

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comMarch 5, 2014 

Republican leaders can taste it: a quick and lean 2014 legislative session that ends by March 21.

“The only thing that will keep us here is a major blowup on a budget,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

On Monday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee passed a $1.4 billion general fund spending bill for K-12 schools.

With an increase of 5.1 percent — well above Gov. Butch Otter’s 2.9 percent blueprint and with a teacher pay increase Otter didn’t recommend — that might spark the fireworks Bedke hopes to avoid.

“There may be a problem in the House among the conservatives,” said HouseMinority Leader John Rusche, a Lewiston Democrat.

But Bedke said Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, has “done a great job informing his committee and keeping them up to speed. They’ve been right in the middle of these education budgets.”

While the bill spends more than many would have predicted two months ago, Bedke said, “I think it does reflect the collective, with probably just as many people thinking it’s a little too much as think it’s a little too little.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, says the most generous K-12 bill since 2008 will be popular in his northwest Ada County district.

“In most of the meetings in my district, what comes up is schools,” Moyle said. “We’ve taken good care of schools.”

DIALING BACK

After a bruising 2013 session that deeply split the Republican Party over Otter’s state-run health insurance exchange, leaders said lawmakers needed a short session so they could get home to run for re-election.

“We didn’t dictate it coming in,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, a Rexburg Republican. “There was a lot of buy-in from legislators.”

That meant most of the 85 Republicans in the 105-member Legislature were content with Otter’s decision not to take up Medicaid expansion or transportation funding. As Otter told the Associated General Contractors in December, Idaho’s top priority for 2014 is “gettin’ me re-elected.”

Despite unrelenting pressure from protesters calling for civil rights protections for gays, bisexuals and transgender people, no hearing has been held. Meanwhile, pro-gun, pro-agriculture and anti-wolf bills have moved, all good issues for the GOP.

Democrats, not surprisingly, are miffed.

“I just really am disappointed in the majority’s short-term view,” said Rusche.

While pleased that some health legislation is moving — including restoration of dental coverage for the poor — Rusche bemoans inaction on expanding Medicaid to about 100,000 low-income Idahoans that would come with a heavy federal subsidy.

“The big one — the one that saves 120 lives a year and $90 million — is one that we can’t even talk about,” Rusche said. “But don’t forget: We did wolves!”

Said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum: “They’ve played it as safely as they can. It just feels like we’ve refused to do policy-making and there’s so much room for improvement. We weren’t elected to do nothing.”

GOING-HOME LIST

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, keeps a 3-by-5 card in his shirt pocket listing bills that must be cleared — passed or defeated — before the Legislature can adjourn. It includes:

- A tax-incentive plan championed by Commerce Director Jeff Sayer.

- A deal on a water dispute in Caldwell.

- Shifting cigarette taxes to pay to recharge groundwater and pay off road debt.

- Pay raises for statewide elected officials and judges.

- Interim committees on restructuring the Land Board and justice reinvestment.

- A workers’ compensation bill sought by the Idaho National Lab.

- Davis’ own bill to raise freeway speed limits to 80 mph.

A deal on tax cuts looks unlikely. Bedke and Moyle, while advocating income tax reductions, say they are unwilling to delay the session to settle a dispute between the House and Senate.

“I’m not staying here another week on that,” Moyle said.

“The focus is on getting our budget set and heading home, if for no other reason than Idaho has to have confidence we can get our work done in the designated time,” Davis said. “We believe we can get our work done March 21.”

Stennett laments Idaho’s status as a national leader in incarceration rates and minimum-wage workers and as a doormat on school support and physicians per capita.

“I’m tired of being pegged at the bottom,” she said.

But asked whether voters are likely to elect more Democrats, Stennett said, “I wish I understood what motivates an electorate.

“So often I hear from Idahoans about how unhappy they are with how things are going and being lowest on all these things. But are they mad enough to protest? Are they going to make their voices heard in 2014 that they want things done differently? I don’t know.”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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