To the casual observer of the Idaho Legislature, the reorganizing and committee assigning ahead of the 2017 session might appear like so much rearranging of deck chairs on the ship of state. That would be a sizable miscalculation, though.
The committee structure is the prime conduit for legislation in both houses. Rarely do personal bills, introduced by lawmakers in the session’s opening weeks, get very far. So who chairs the committees largely determines what legislation gets even a hearing, much less a vote in committee and, from there, a trip to the floor of the House or Senate.
Republicans, as the longtime majority party in both houses, get to name committee chairs and vice chairs, and committee membership roughly mirrors the overall 4-1 Republican advantage in each house. There is some seniority accorded, and there is a tiered hierarchy of importance and stature among the various panels. So when more prominent assignments change hands, it’s worth taking note.
Here’s what’s eye-catching based on this week’s realignments:
Joint Finance- Appropriations Committee
The estimable 20-member House-Senate panel of legislative budget writers has the same chairs as last year — Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome — but a wholesale change in membership, with seven new senators and three new House members. Several of those who’ve been replaced were tapped to head other committees; three erstwhile members, all senators, are no longer in the Legislature.
At least as notable as the change in membership is a meeting format change: No longer will administrative agencies lead off the initial monthlong series of budget presentations. Legislative budget analysts will present instead, with administrative reps on hand to answer questions.
Committee pecking order
After JFAC, the State Affairs committees in both houses handle the weightiest, often most controversial matters of state policy — such as gun rights, abortion and civil rights. Subsequent tiers tend to fluctuate in relative significance depending on the legislative agenda. In the last session, with education, health care, transportation and the taxes to pay for it all taking center stage, those germane committees held the limelight. They likely will continue to do so in the coming session, health care especially. Also routinely front and center are committees dealing with criminal justice and local government, which includes taxing districts and local options.
There was no change in leadership for House State Affairs, but Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, replaces departed Sen. Curt McKenzie as chair of the Senate committee, and that’s likely to set a different tone and direction. McKenzie was a strong supporter of expanded gun rights, but also supported efforts to legalize cannabis oil for treatment of seizures and to repeal legalized instant horse racing betting terminals.
Siddoway, who draws knowing eye-rolls and muffled laughs from colleagues when he describes himself as a “simple sheepherder,” was sort of kicked upstairs with the appointment. He had chaired the Local Government and Taxation committee, and in that role had drawn a line in the sand on blocking any tax reform measure that could hurt education funding, to the consternation of many tax-cutting hawks. A simple rancher he is anything but, he is loyal and steadfast to the Senate leadership.
“They asked me to do it, and I’m just a soldier,” he told The Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell on Thursday.
Siddoway remains on the tax committee, which will be headed by Sen. Dan Johnson of Lewiston, who’s got the same sense of priorities and sensibilities as Siddoway. Most recently, Johnson co-chaired the Legislature’s interim panel looking at changes to Idaho’s faith-based legal exemptions. The panel concluded its work in October without making recommendations, but Johnson threaded the needle on a difficult assignment, managing to keep discussion orderly and focused on a topic that stirs strong public passions.
Changes in the House
Three of the seven new committee chairs in the House are the result of vacancies where incumbents either left or lost re-election. Their moves created two new vacancies.
In the most significant move, Boise Rep. Lynn Luker is the new chairman of Judiciary, Rules & Administration. It was this committee’s late-session balk at approving new national child support rules that threw the Legislature into an embarrassing one-day special session in 2015 to fix things.
Luker moves from chairing the House Local Government committee, which now will be led by Nampa Rep. Christy Perry. That’s a step up for her in terms of legislative heft. She previously chaired the House Ways & Means committee, the House speaker’s personal vehicle for rapidly introducing, or killing, legislation. Membership apart from the chair comprises the House majority and minority leadership.
Chairing Ways & Means is a prestigious appointment, a show of the leadership’s confidence and support. That honor now goes to another Nampa Republican, Robert Anderst, who is entering his third term.
New chairs will lead the committees on Agricultural Affairs; Education; Environment, Energy, and Technology; and Resources & Conservation. Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale takes over Agriculture from the retired Ken Andrus, and in Education, Julie VanOrden of Pingree succeeds Reed DeMordaunt, who after three terms did not run again. With education registering as the top issue among Idahoans in poll after poll, VanOrden can expect to be busy.
Finally, in the category of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” the respective House and Senate chairs of Health and Welfare, Rep. Fred Wood of Burley and Sen. Lee Heider of Twin Falls, return. Both are experienced and knowledgeable veterans, ready for the national debate over health care to spill over into their committee rooms and the halls of the Capitol.