Friday, May 8, 2009

Session was marked by unnecessary cuts, GOP split

The 2009 Idaho Legislature has finally concluded after 117 days and a cost of more than $3.5 million to taxpayers. After the second-longest session in Idaho Legislative history, many of us are asking “What do Idahoans have to show for it?”

While transportation funding was the Legislature's main hurdle, the economy was the real story of the session. Over the past year, Idaho has gone from leading the nation in job creation to leading in unemployment growth. Combined with stagnant housing and financial markets, high unemployment means that state tax revenues are down significantly. Just as Idaho families and businesses have had to cut back, so has Idaho government, but Democrats fought hard to protect necessary services like police and public education.

Republicans had a different view. Throughout much of this session, they seemed determined to use our real but temporary economic downturn to make permanent and detrimental changes to Idaho’s public schools, colleges and universities and to negatively impact Idaho’s ability to deliver services to its citizens. The 2009 Legislature will forever be remembered as the one that made the first-ever cuts to public schools – cuts that many of us felt were completely unnecessary, given the availability of federal recovery money and Idaho taxpayers’ own rainy-day funds. Like most Idahoans, Democrats realize that strong schools and a robust job market are keys to our state’s future prosperity, so we worked to lessen attacks on our schools and economic development efforts and use a reasonable share of our available resources.

Other important issues remained virtually unaddressed during the long 2009 legislative session: health care, clean energy, rural broadband, telecommunications and economic development. While we saw the Legislature push a toothless measure to declare our state sovereignty, once again any meaningful ethics legislation died in the legislative process. While we saw the Legislature protect Idaho’s waters from zebra mussels, the majority party rejected protection of those same waters from inadequate septic systems and toxic chemicals. And while we debated transportation for months, Republicans cynically prevented any serious consideration of authority to trust local communities to address their own transportation and infrastructure needs.

Democrats are proud to report some solid successes. We led the campaign to strengthen Idaho’s child-care laws, and after five years, we succeeded. We pushed legislation to make schools more energy efficient and a successful measure to recognize that working Idaho women deserve equal pay. Democrats also worked to maintain life-saving health care for adults living with cystic fibrosis and forced reversal of the ill-timed layoffs of state auditors who were chasing tax cheats. But we did not drive the Legislature’s agenda, and like most Idahoans, we believe it went on far too long, with far too little accomplished for Idaho.

It became clear during this marathon session that Idaho’s Republicans lack a coherent vision for Idaho's future and are ill-equipped to handle the demands of our global economy and our changing population. Despite holding most of the legislative seats and the Governor’s office, Republicans appeared to spend much of the 2009 session locked in power struggles, unable to govern effectively and meet Idaho’s citizens’ most basic needs.

Idahoans deserve better. Democrats are unified behind a vision of a robust economy, pristine resources that value our farming and ranching traditions, excellent schools, efficient state services and a fair deal for all of our citizens. Democrats will continue to work for Idaho’s future, putting the public good first as we were elected to do.

John Rusche of Lewiston and Kate Kelly of Boise serve as minority leaders in the Idaho House and Senate, respectively.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The real story on the GOP standoff

Senator Elliot Werk (District 17) sent this message in his newsletter to constituents last weekend. The House did return today, and the Legislature is now on Day 113.

The Idaho legislative session is now in its 111th day – the 2nd longest session in history. The conservative Republican Governor is locked in a battle to raise the gas tax in the deepest recession in a generation with House Republican leadership who refuse to bring another gas tax increase to the House (the House has already voted down four gas tax increase proposals). The Governor is backed by Senate Republican leadership.

Senate Democrats have refused to support a gas tax increase on struggling Idaho families. House Democrats have very effectively and strategically leveraged votes in their caucus to reduce cuts to education budgets.

(Wednesday) night the House “finished their business,” adjourned Sine Die (meaning without a date), and left town saying that they will not consider another gas tax increase. Meanwhile the Senate continues in session with Senate Republican leadership looking to back the governor.

According to the Idaho constitution one legislative body cannot adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other. So the House will be forced to return this coming Monday when the Senate does not accept their adjournment. What will happen when the House returns on Monday is anyone’s guess.

This is what we call a stalemate – the players are locked into their positions!

But the important question is why. What could be so difficult about the passage of a small gas tax increase? After all the Republican Party controls almost 80% of the seats in the legislature along with the governor’s office.

The answer isn’t in the issue; the answer is in the politics.

The Republican Party in Idaho is currently experiencing a civil (or perhaps not-so-civil) war. The Republican Party is very conservative. However, there is a wing of the party that is extremely conservative and they are seeking to take control of the party from the current conservative leadership.

This battle has been raging for years but really began to pick up steam when Bill Sali was elected to Congress in 2006. Sali won a primary packed with five far right conservatives and one “moderate” (I place this in quotes because there are really almost no true moderates in the Republican power structure). Sali’s supporters then began to try and systematically eliminate all typical conservative and “moderate” vestiges from the Republican Party leadership.

At the 2008 Republican Party state convention the far right conservative’s ousted long time party head Kirk Sullivan and installed far right stalwart Norm Semanko (one of the losers in the 2006 Congressional primary). This change occurred over the objections of Governor Otter and other long-time party brass.

Then the far right conservatives at the convention voted to close the Republican primary election in the hopes of purging any remaining “moderates” by ensuring party purity during primary elections. The closed primary election would ensure that only the most conservative candidates won election. This set the stage for the current fight.

So, this fight isn’t really over the gas tax, it is a fight about the future of the Republican Party in Idaho.
Will the far right conservatives fully subsume the Republican Party? Will they eventually oust Butch Otter as being too “moderate”? Will they impose some far right litmus test for belonging to the Republican Party (labeling everyone else RINO’s – Republican In Name Only)? Will they close their primary elections forcing people to register for their party to vote in their primary – all at public expense? FYI - a decision on a lawsuit - brought by the far right - to force the closing their party primary election is currently pending in front of Judge Winmill.

All of these pressures are forcing Republican legislators to move inexorably further to the right. You see with the closed primary the candidate with the furthest right positions is most likely to win (since the far right party purists dominate the primary election turnout). Hence this session alone we get seven NRA-sponsored gun bills and a memorial to Congress asserting our sovereignty (just as we were accepting about $1 billion in federal stimulus money!) and seeking elimination of the Federal Reserve bank.

Meanwhile the Republican Party has lost the ability to effectively govern. It is no longer about what might be best for the state of Idaho. They are so consumed with their party war that the people of the state of Idaho are being left out in the cold.

As the Republicans move further to the far right, the ability to craft consensus legislation that serves the people is lost. Instead we get a litany of legislative initiatives that have unintended consequences, cater to the most conservative element of their party, are either unenforceable or represent empty messages instead of good public policy, or provide special interests with benefits at the expense of the people..

And, of course, we get stalemate in the statehouse (or Dysfunction Junction as we Democrats are now calling it). At a cost of roughly $30,000/day this legislative session has already cost the people of this state $3,330,000. And with the House on a four day break until the Senate calls them back, the taxpayers are still paying for all of the per diem for the absent House members ($49/day for locals and $122/day for the out-of-towners).

If all this weren’t so sad and frustrating it would actually be funny. A party civil war that threatens the authority of their own sitting Governor and seeks to move a very conservative party further to the right while wasting taxpayer funds and resulting in the second longest legislative session in history (with every possibility of making it to number one in just a week). You could write a book about this stuff.

Unfortunately the people of this great state need to sit through the melodrama and wait for their fate (and the fate of their children) to be written in the backrooms. Welcome to Idaho!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

House Democrats oppose adjournment stunt

The Idaho House adjourned "Sine Die" (without a planned date to meet again) shortly before 9 p.m. on April 29, over the objections of House Democrats, the Senate and Governor Butch Otter.

House Minority Leader John Rusche said "I don't believe it's constitutional," and reminded his colleagues that when the Senate attempted to adjourn without concurrence of the House in 1980, they were not permitted to do so. "The legislature is a team, Senate and House yoked together to do their work and move the state forward," Rusche said. "The legislature is constructed to have a balance of power between the houses and both 'balance' and 'power' are important parts of the phrase."

"We all feel an intense desire to serve the needs of our districts," Rusche added. "One of those needs is to have a government that works. I don't see how this motion promotes that value. Working government requires personal interaction and compromise. I don't see that the unilateral action this motion puts into place serves the value of good, working government."

Democrats held a news conference the following morning to further explain why we believe it's Republican power struggles - even more than the impasse over transportation funding - that have prolonged the legislative session, now the second-longest in state history. See video highlights of it here.

The House will have to be back at work Monday, May 4, because the Senate did not concur with its adjournment. Since Republicans hold 76 percent of the seats in the legislature and the governor's chair, it is primarily up to them to resolve their differences and bring this session to a close.