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!