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One session, three thoughts

It was a long day at the Idaho Statehouse. A bill of some significance, House Bill 1, a property tax measure proposed by Governor Jim Risch, was passed. We were struck most especially, however, by three other things.

Mark RicksSympathy for Mark Ricks. You had to feel for Idaho’s new lieutenant governor, just appointed, Mark Ricks. His appointment by Risch some weeks backwas supposed to be mainly an honorary thing; it expires in January. But here comes this session, just one day but very rugged, and it put him through the mill. Neither he nor Risch, who appointed him, could have expected anything like it.

Only one bill was on the agenda, but it was controversial. Everyone seems to want to do something about property taxes, but over the last month a large protest around the state developed against Risch’s proposal, which involves moving much of the cost of paying for public schools from the local property tax to the state sales tax. That protest in advance included press conferences and “pork BBQ” lunches, but it was only a warm up. Once the session started, Democrats, first in the House and then even more forcefully in the Senate, used almost every parliamentary device in the rule book to block the bill. Some of those devices, including obscire protests, hadn’t been tried in a generation or more. A Senate session expected to last maybe two or three hours went on, and on. A session launched at 8 a.m. and originally expected to be over at least by late afternoon, wrapped at about a quarter past 11 at night.

Ricks presided over just about all of the Senate session. Years ago, as a senator and a majority leader, he periodically presided over the Senate, and knew the rules and presided fluently. But he left the Senate 12 years ago, and he is 82 years old now, and the procedures don’t roll out quite so easily. And this was his first day on the job in a dozen years. From time to time, he would sound confused and – you could hear it from a distance – call out for help.

No matter. Ricks, a courteous man with a positive outlook, managed to keep both his perspective and his humor throughout what had to be a rough experience. He emerged as a class act.

Idaho capitol interiorRespect in the morning. Ricks kept his cool (as generally, so did House Speaker Bruce Newcomb in his swan song). But Republicans were infuriated, especially in the Senate, by what the Democrats were doing. The small minority (13 of 70 in the House, seven of 35 in the Senate) lodged protest after protest. They forced votes that usually get unanomous consent. They forced the reading of the (long) bill. None of it changed the ultimate outcome, since the bill passed both House and Senate with strong margins.

What the Democrats did was hardly without effect, though. When the session opened the conventional wisdom was that it would be a quickie slam dunk, that the votes were lined up – Risch would not have called the session unless he believed they were – and that it would all over over in four or five hours, easily and painlessly. By forcing the agony, the Democrats gave themselves time to define the issue and forced the Republicans to respond to them. By blocking the Republicans, over and over, by simply making life that one day uncomfortable for them, they sent a stunning message: “We don’t care anymorewhether you’re mad or not. We won’t be rolled again without a fight. Cross us at your peril.”

Not only that: By protesting as they did, they redefined the issue, they recast it, they set up a redefintion for themselves and for the Republicans, and they set up a campaign issue they can ride on for the next couple of months. It was the single most powerful political piece of work Idaho’s Democrats have done in more than a decade.

They provided ample warning to the opposition. An anecdote from amidst the Senate debates: Around midafternoon, the Senate Democratic leadership called out for pizzas to be delivered for their caucus, for that evening. They asked Republican leadership if they wanted to order pizzas too, but were told: Why bother? We’ll be out of here by then. That evening, after the Democrats had snacked and Republicans were getting hungry, Ricks was moved (apparently semiseriously) to ask if the Democrats had any of that pizza left. (They didn’t.)

Those tough Democrats in Washington state, or in quite a few other places, would have understood. So, for that matter, would a lot of Republican strategists from the last generation. A certain helping of ruthlessness – which the Senate Democratic caucus displayed on Friday – is an essential component to political power; you get no respect without it. (Ask Cecil Andrus, who had it and got it.) As infuriated as they made the Republicans, the Democrats on Friday roared out of Rodney Dangerfield territory, and that may yield returns in newfound support and caution when Republicans meet up with them. Want further evidence of the significance of this? Anyone who watched Friday’s presentation would get a politically clear distinction between what the two parties stood for, courtesy primarily of the Democrats – and the Democrats would not be hurt by the definition.

Followup will be needed for this to have real impact. But it was quite a start.

A real tax talk.Most of the legislators, wrapped up in the partisan battle, may not have realized how much genuinely good discussion about the Idaho tax system this debate prompted.

Idaho’s tax system, split principally among property, income and sales taxes, in general comes in for praise – from other states and from tax professionals – because of its balanced nature. At the same time, almost no one thinks it’s perfect.

A reality moment: Tax policy is best conceived as a never-ending project in working out who should be paying what portion, and how to assess it. There is no one perfect answer, ever, if one were found it soon would be obsolete. But the work of making it better requires more than considering the narrow merits of this bill or that. It requires a broad view, a larger sense of how the taxes interact and work together and who gets affected and how.

Partly because this bill was explicitly about the relationship between the property and sales tax (and, to an extent, their involvement with public schools financing), it afforded a great opportunity to discuss that broader picture. And a lot of legislators jumped in, to excellent effect. Some of the best debate (on both sides) was amidst the most heated partisanship: The emotion seemed to break down the formalities a little, and watchers and listeners were treated, over the course of hours, to a great overview of taxation in Idaho. (Yeah, yeah – but if you’re going to be an active citizen and vote on these issues and officeholders, you need to eat your spinach. And this was nutritious spinach.)

Probably hardly any legislators want to, uh, pick up where they left off Friday. But if they can remember the experience of a large-scale discussion of taxation, there might be some long-range benefits from the remarkable debate we saw on Friday.

VOTE NOTE: Did anyone else notice that the vote in the House was 47-23 and in the Senate 24-11? So what, you say? In each chamber, the vote in favor was exactly enough for a two-thirds majority; a lot of one vote in either place would, if extended out to procedural votes, have been enough to stop HB1 cold. This thing was calculated precisely.

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