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ID: Legislature ahead


All three – Idaho, Oregon, Washington – Statehouses (or, in Idaho, the Annex) this year have decisively unified governments: One party, and even one general viewpoint, strongly in control in each of those three places. Which doesn’t preclude some tussling and turning, even internally. And there seems to be some soul-struggle going on as legislators prepare to convene in Idaho.

Not that there’s much dispute about the outline. As in Washington and Oregon, revenue is down, plummeting, and employment may be headed toward even worse status in Idaho than in the other two. In Idaho in recent years, the notion of raising taxes just isn’t on the table. So that means cuts, substantial cuts. Significant state layoffs, probably upwards of 100 jobs, seem in the offing. But a lot of other ideas seem almost off the table, maybe in part because the state’s sheer overwhelming reputation for fiscal conservatism seems to bar certain ideas.

But these conservatism don’t seem to be relishing the cutting ahead. Senator John McGee, R-Caldwell (who may be running for Congress in 2010 and therefore would be eager to appeal to the right): “We run such a tight ship over here that when we do have cuts, they hurt. It’s going to be painful. And I’ll tell you what’s different: We don’t know where the bottom is.”

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter comes out of libertarian background and has literally made a career out of the idea of cutting government down to size. But consider this from an Idaho Statesman piece today: “The crumbling economy gives him a chance to affirm a core value: ‘Government should be there when nobody else is,’ but leave the rest to the private sector. Being governor has shown him that finding that line is vexing. He says he can’t get the face of an autistic boy named Spencer out of his mind. Spencer’s mother confronted Otter about cutting Spencer’s treatment from 30 hours a week to 22. ‘Nobody ever mentions the Health and Welfare budget that I don’t see Spencer’s face,’ Otter said. ‘Ever.'”

In an interview with the Idaho Statesman, there was this revealing bit: “Q: You aren’t getting private- sector general contractors, alternative-energy types, broadband providers? A: No, I haven’t. Maybe the agencies have. I haven’t had anybody call me and say, ‘Butch, go get this money and go get that money.’ In fact, the only long-term discussion I’ve had about this is with the media.” We’d probably put down some green on the idea that this isn’t true of Gregoire in Washington or Kulongoski in Oregon.

But: Taxes will be a no-starter, and cuts will be deep. And there’s reason to believe that Otter and the Republican leadership will get along better this cycle than they did last, partly owing to experience and maybe partly to the re-placement of Brad Little, a highly-regarded senator, as lieutenant governor.

As with most of its counterparts, the Idaho Legislature has only one required job on its plate, per session: Pass and fund a budget. In one form or another, that’s always the big deal, and will overwhelm everything else this time around. Otter’s big issue of the last year, transportation, will be swept up in it (though there’s a good chance that some of it may be funded by federal stimulus money).

Beyond that? Merit pay and charter schools will be up for action, generating battles. Hunting and fishing license increases will be proposed, and likely passed.

But bear in mind that this legislature, taken as a whole, looks almost exactly the same as the last one. You can probably take that as a pretty good indicator of what will and won’t happen. Or approach placement on the table.

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