If Dan Johnson finds himself too often riding herd on complex, contentious issues, he might try being less conscientious or successful at working through them. That way, the leadership in Idaho’s Senate might stop tapping him for the job.
The Lewiston Republican is in sixth year in the Legislature. Last summer, Johnson was asked to be Senate co-chair of a joint legislative panel reviewing how and where to draw the line between religious freedom and medical neglect when it comes to Idaho’s faith-healing legal exemptions.
This session, he was named to chair the Senate Local Government and Taxation committee — the panel where House-sponsored tax cut plans of recent years have gone down to defeat.
The topics could not be more different, but the decision dynamics are the same: In each case, one side or the other, and possibly both, will be unhappy with the outcome.
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As for the roles he plays in them, Johnson sought neither, but willingly accepted both.
“It was a challenge to get prepared for that,” he said Friday of the faith healing matter, winding up work at the Capitol before heading home to Lewiston for the weekend. “And on the tax committee, that one just kind of gave me pause. I had to think about that, because I know it meant a big shift for me here in the Legislature in terms of where my focus would be and what role I would play.”
My reaction to the faith healing working group was ‘Why me?’ I didn’t know anything about the issue, really.
LEGISLATIVE DEJA VU
Johnson’s legislative career started with him in a tight spot. Appointed to a vacancy by Gov. Butch Otter in 2012, he was the swing vote on a tax cut plan that year.
“Unelected Idaho senator holds key to adjournment,” the Statesman headline read, adding for good measure: “The rookie from Lewiston appears to have the swing vote on a tax cut and budget deal.”
“I remember that, waking up that morning and going, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” he said.
Johnson kept his views to himself until the tax cut reached the Senate floor. There, he voted for it. Ironically, it’s the same tax cut now coming before his committee— a paring of the personal and corporate income tax, dropped then to their current 7.4 percent levels. Now, a House bill proposes to cut them both to 7.2 percent. With lots of other pieces to the state spending puzzle still in flux, he’s not sure whether his committee will take it up.
“I find myself in a very interesting position here,” he said. “It kind of harkens back to those days.”
Johnson, who celebrated his 57th birthday Friday, first came to Idaho in 1986 from Sheridan, Wyo., to attend the University of Idaho. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in Kansas, raised in North Dakota and graduated high school in Minnesota. He got a master’s degree in forest economics and worked in the field in Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere for the timber industry, unions and logging contractors.
“I looked at dynamic modeling of economies and how they’re impacted by changes in land use decisions,” he explained. “How does that trickle through the economy? Where the impacts go, positive or negative.”
He moved from Oregon to Lewiston the day of the 9/11 attacks. Before that, he had lived in Nez Perce and Cottonwood, where his four children from his first marriage attended school. He has two more children from his second marriage. All are grown.
His other committee assignments?
“I chose to be on the Resources and Environment Committee this year and also the Agricultural Committee. They’re very good fits for my district. Certainly the Resources and Environment committee is something that I have some experience with…. And agriculture too, having grown up in an agricultural community. I’ve spent a little time picking rock, or sacking potatoes, or pulling beets, or driving combine or trucks. I’ve been around it on that end, so I’m definitely interested in that too, especially ag trade and what we do there.”
What are his views on climate change?
“Are things changing? Sure, they’re changing. From studying and observing and monitoring these kinds of things, I get concerned with what I’m seeing today, but I am not convinced that it’s entirely due to man-caused activities. It’s certainly a concern because we’re seeing the changes across the globe. The changes in our oceans right now are pretty scary.”
His work in committee?
“I certainly try to do my homework. I take full advantage of our legislative research staff upstairs to get me as much information as I can to understand the background and how we get to where we are in the decision process. That’s very important to me. I just try to spend a lot of time doing my research and I have a lot of help in that process.”
What about taxes, and government spending?
“I think as a state we have to have enough government to run government. What I say to myself sometimes is this: Government sufficient for the needs of a growing Idaho. I don’t say, Government sufficient for the growing needs of Idaho. So the emphasis is on growing Idaho.
“So when (growth) happens, like it’s happening now, we have to be able to match government services to the demands that are being placed on that. We have to find what that right balance is, the ‘sufficient’ part of it to meeting the needs of a growing Idaho. And that’s why I like to look at the budget, and I like to look at the taxes….We’re going to be talking about government and the size of government and expenditures, and where we spend those dollars. And then will be talking about tax policy. It’s not going to be just tax expenditures that we’re talking about.”
Tax policy, faith-based exemptions — similar approach to different issues?
“I think that’s very accurate. From the very beginning, when I first got tasked with co-chairing that working group, I spent an evening with member of the Followers of Christ (a faith healing sect). I wanted them to meet me, I wanted them to get comfortable with me. I laid out what my job was and put some bounds on that: ‘We’re going to do nothing, or we’re going to remove the (faith-based) exemptions, and look at everything in between.’ ”
Will there be legislation on faith healing this sessions? Recommendations?
“I don’t see the group recommending a piece of legislation. I see us giving (Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill) what he asked us to provide back to him. ... I can tell you I’ve put hundreds of hours into this. This summer and fall, there were some days I’d spend four to six hours on this, on the phone, reading, things like that, and writing it down.” Johnson said he plans to discuss his conclusions with other panel members. Those findings will go in a letter to Hill, then be made public.
I think most folks understand that you do the best you can and not everybody is going to be happy, and I’m very comfortable in that.
In each case, not everyone will be happy. You?
“Probably in the silence of my own room, I’m going to be able look in the mirror and know that I did the best that I could. That’s probably as much a pay off as I’m going to get. But I also know that I have made a commitment to this job and I’ve made a commitment to the people that I represent, and I think that they know and understand that level of commitment that I have. So I feel good about that. I think most folks understand that you do the best you can and not everybody is going to be happy, and I’m very comfortable in that. It doesn’t mean it’s any easier. But you’re right, at some point you’ve got to make a decision. Something’s got to happen.”