State Politics

When Idaho legislative chairmen (rarely) go rogue

William L. Spence
William L. Spence

The geese in Downtown Boise are using the crosswalks again.

I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, these fat honkers blithely stepping into traffic. They eyeball oncoming cars the way they would an unruly herd of cattle, then slowly make their way across the road, following the same walkways as humans.

You can practically hear them thinking, “I have the right of way.”

There are some smart birds. They know how to stay between the lines.

That, of course, is true for many of us. We learn where the boundaries are, what constitutes proper behavior. We learn to recognize when we’ve gone astray. We prefer to stick with the flock, where things are safer.

That’s why it was such a surprise when Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, went rogue the other week, scheduling the Legislature’s first-ever hearing on two Medicaid expansion bills without even telling party leaders.

“We hear the bill and whatever the outcome is, that’s the outcome,” Heider said. “I don’t have a problem with that.”

That’s how one imagines the legislative process working: proposals being considered on their merits, the public having an opportunity to weigh in and the votes being counted.

Then Heider remembered where the lines were. In the six days between his initial comment and the hearing, he suddenly decided no action would be taken on the bills. He was back on script.

But is there really a “script” that committee chairmen are required to follow? Do they have the leeway to explore major policy initiatives on their own, or are certain issues off-limits because of political considerations?

The standard answer is party leaders only rarely ride herd, that their caucus members are free to pursue whatever legislation they wish, it they can muster the votes.

“I view the Legislature as an arena of ideas,” House Speaker Scott Bedke noted in 2014. “If you bring an idea, with very few exceptions, it will be heard and voted up or down.”

The reality falls a bit short of that.

So far this session, for example, those “very few exceptions” amount to 23 bills, or 6 percent of all the bills introduced through last Friday.

They’re sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee, where bills are sent to die. Democrats sponsored 19 of them.

Almost all are personal bills, meaning they were introduced without going through the germane committees. Bedke said that’s why he assigned them to Ways and Means.

“I believe a personal bill is an attempt to circumvent the committee process,” he said. “They’re just a way of making a personal statement.”

That’s certainly true, but Democrats also say it’s often the only avenue open to them.

“The reason we do personal bills is because we go to a committee chairman and they tell us, ‘No, leadership won’t let me hear that,’ ” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

As for them being “personal statements,” that applies to any number of bills. Consider Rexburg Rep. Ron Nate’s abortion ultrasound measure or Cottonwood Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll’s Bible bill. Are they less personal, for example, than the Hire Idaho Act, jointly sponsored by Lewiston Rep. Dan Rudolph and Plummer Rep. Paulette Jordan?

Yet the Hire Idaho Act, which would give Idaho businesses a 5 percent preference on certain state and local government contracts, is sitting in Ways and Means. So is Boise Rep. Sue Chew’s proposal to ease Idaho’s Children’s Health Insurance Program eligibility requirements in Idaho, which are the second-most restrictive in the nation.

Granted, the minority party always will complain about being ignored — but when measures can’t be “heard and voted up or down,” maybe they have a point.

If the concern is that the bills lack support, how about adopting a rule that guarantees them a hearing only if they have at least 10 co-sponsors?

Oh, wait. Someone already proposed that — a Democrat. Her bill is sitting in Ways and Means.

Then there’s Rusche’s inspector general bill, which would create a new office to investigate complaints of government fraud, waste and abuse.

He followed the “proper” path, presenting the measure to the House State Affairs Committee, where it was introduced on a 9-8 vote. It didn’t help, though; the bill was still sent to Ways and Means.

Bedke said he was just reluctant to create a new office, but it illustrates the dangers — and temptations — of being in the majority. Simply by exercising your prerogatives, you claim the right of way and hobble the minority’s ability to compete.

Ultimately, that might have been Heider’s biggest sin: He went outside the flock. By scheduling the Medicaid hearings, he not only breathed life into the expansion debate, he showed deference to the bills’ Democratic sponsor, Sen. Dan Schmidt of Moscow.

Is that really such risky behavior? Clever geese are entertaining, but elected representatives should be able to think and act outside the lines.

Spence covers politics for The Lewiston Tribune: bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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