Bill Manny

Posturing and politicking at the O.K. Corral: A preview of the 2018 election, Legislature

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, with Gov. Butch Otter listening, speaks to reporters about a health insurance executive order Friday at the Capitol.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, with Gov. Butch Otter listening, speaks to reporters about a health insurance executive order Friday at the Capitol. AP

Wonder how this year’s elections might warp lawmaking in the 2018 Legislature? Look no further than Friday’s traditional presession briefing for journalists.

The three months of the legislative session correspond roughly to the months remaining before the May primary. It seems like half of Idaho’s 105 legislators are running (OK, six, but it feels like a lot more) for the open seats for governor, lieutenant governor or 1st District Congress. And everybody else is busy sorting themselves into factions favoring one or another.

“It’ll be like the O.K. Corral,” predicted Rep. Mat Erpelding, the House Democratic leader, when asked how the election-year jockeying will affect lawmaking this session. “It’s going to be a shootout.”

While Speaker Scott Bedke took pains to note that “shootout” is metaphoric, he and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill did allow that they expect more rhetoric and flamboyance and ridicule, if not a free-for-all.

Exhibit 1 was the ill-timed and ill-prepared health insurance plan unveiled by Gov. Butch Otter on Friday as a way to showcase his friend and understudy, Brad Little, the lieutenant governor who wants to be governor. The plan would let Idaho insurers sell cheaper health plans without the essential benefits that have been mandated by the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, a move that Otter said is made possible by Congress’ recent tax bill.

Announced with few details and no warning to the state’s network of health care advocates (or even the legislative leaders in the room, who whispered questions to reporters to ask), it prompted requests for details that neither Little nor Otter nor Insurance Director Dean Cameron was prepared to answer. It didn’t help that Otter’s one example of the kind of essential benefits that insurers might choose to not offer was “pregnancy care.”

(A bit of advice, from one gray-haired male to another: When speaking to a room full of female reporters, don’t raise the possibility of removing maternity care from insurance plans unless you are prepared to discuss it in detail and with authority.)

Otter, to his credit, has made these presession briefings a tradition. Organized and presented by the Boise Associated Press staff, they have become don’t-miss events for political journalists, legislators and insiders who want to rub elbows and swap gossip.

But more than one person described Friday’s session to me as a “stunt” for the Little campaign. During the briefing, Otter took the unusual step of having Little co-sign the executive order letting Cameron develop the coverage guidelines. Otter, in response to a question, defended how he handled it, noting Little’s role in various initiatives. He said he and Little would be traveling the state together to explain the plan.

It makes sense, and is perfectly appropriate, for Otter to stump for Little, literally and figuratively his loyal lieutenant. But Friday’s awkward announcement signaled just how awkward the next few months could get.

Worse than a mildly awkward press event is the possible harm it did to the larger effort to get the federal government to approve waivers for Idaho to craft a plan to cover more people who have no, or unaffordable, health insurance. Covering the uninsured and accessing federal dollars already is a hard sell in this Legislature, and this plan will confuse, distract and possibly undercut an effort in which Otter and his departments have admirably invested valuable time and good will to advance.

What other legislation might election-year politicking redirect or derail? The 2017 session was marred by bitter internal GOP warfare and a conservative challenge to Bedke’s leadership. Liberty Legislators have signaled that they’re prepared to challenge him again if their bills and issues get ignored. Posturing around the 2018 election adds potential for new mischief and chaos.

Another powderkeg issue in 2018: How the Legislature handles complaints about sexual harassment. In response to questions, Hill and Bedke promised details in advance of next Tuesday’s training session for legislators and staff — including reporters and lobbyists who work in the Capitol.

(A bit of advice from one gray-beard male to his fellows: When discussing new plans for handling complaints about sexual harassment to a roomful of female reporters, have the details nailed down.)

You could see the relief from Hill and Bedke when talk turned back to the easy stuff, like tax conformity. Hill, a retired CPA, beamed when asked how the state will tweak its taxes to match the newly revised federal code. It was like asking a Boise State fan about the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Hill waxed poetic about bonus depreciation and Section 179. “Oh, I want to talk about this for a while,” he said.

Bedke asked himself the question he wanted asked, then eagerly answered — about the state’s success at recharging the depleted Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. In his deadpan way, Bedke was as gleeful as Hill.

Like a passel of Idaho legislators, Bedke is a rancher. Little, too, is a rancher. Otter is an honest-to-goodness cowboy. This is not their first rodeo. A Wild West scenario seems entirely possible for 2018.

Bill Manny: bmanny@ idahostatesman.com; 208-377-6406; Twitter/Instagram @whmanny

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