"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

Fig leaf

idaho RANDY
The Idaho

Idaho House Bill 179 is an unusual thing – a cart positioned before the horse, that actually may help pull it.

It’s what usually is called a “trailer bill,” which ordinarily is a measure intended to correct an error or clarify something in another bill that has passed or is about to. This one is unusual in that it has been drafted and introduced before the main bill has reached either the Senate or House floor, while there’s still plenty of time to amend it. Which, under ordinary circumstances and in most years, is what might have happened.

But then, HB 179 also bears a close resemblance to another kind of legislative creation – the fig leaf – and that’s where the story most likely lies.

The subject at hand is one of the hottest topics of this year’s Idaho legislative session, the health insurance exchange. Such an exchange is mandated one way or the other by federal law: Either the state can set one up (within certain requirements), or the feds will institute one. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, no fan of the federal health care law, has argued (along with some legislative leaders, and many business community leaders) that Idaho would be better off with its own program. Critics, including much of the structure of the Idaho Republican Party and many (we don’t know for certain how many) legislators are of a mind to say, “Hell no!” The bill (Senate Billl 1042) has cleared a Senate committee, but its future on the floor, and in the House, remain uncertain.

This year’s legislative session has in it an unusually large number of Republican freshman, and their take on this has been one of the unknowns. Last week, their view became clearer, as 16 of them, led by Representative Luke Malek of Coeur d’Alene, proposed HB 179, which specifically aims to amend Senate Bill 1042; and they said that if it passes, the health insurance exchange bill will get their votes too.

That might signal a casual observer that the new bill was intended as a “gut ‘n stuff,” something aimed at basically killing the other bill. But that turns out not to be the case. The freshman members’ bill offers some modest changes, adding two non-voting legislative members to the 16-member exchange governing board, and requiring open meetings and bidding as the board does its work. It’s pretty unobjectionable stuff, even to the strongest insurance exchange advocate. (The point of the exchange, after all, is supposed to be transparency.) The bill doesn’t undermine or really limit the exchange at all.

So why go through the business of a new bill that makes only minor changes, instead of amending the first one?

Probably because this way, it looks like a bigger deal, and because it has the feel of tough conditions demanded and imposed. If these Republican legislators, many of whose primary voters dislike the whole health care law arrangement, can go home and say they pressed hard new conditions on the situation, they may come off as tougher-minded.

Or something like that. HB 179 at least gives them a fig leaf, come a year from May.

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