Writings and observations

A lobbyist’s take on the session

Watts
 
Greater Pocatello Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Matt Hunter (left) chats with lobbyist John Watts at an Idaho Falls luncheon. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

 

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

John Watts, a partner at Veritas Advisors, has been lobbying Idaho legislators since 1983 on behalf of a wide range of clients.

When he addressed an Idaho Falls Mayor’s Business Day luncheon on April 2, two days before the Legislature adjourned, he said its 2013 session has been “truly uniquely different,” setting new precedents and breaking traditions.

The Boisean said 24-hour cable news, cell phones and social media like Facebook and Twitter were not in existence 30 years ago when he started his career as a lobbyist, but they have dramatically changed the way business is now conducted at the State Capitol.

Everyone at the Statehouse also is worrying about issues at the federal level that directly impact Idaho, Watts said. “Then, along comes redistricting,” which brought about a whole new set of legislative districts and a crop of 32 brand new legislators.

And, for the first time in his memory, a sitting speaker of the House was defeated for re-election, Watts said, referring to Scott Bedke’s defeat of fellow Republican Lawrence Denney for the top post, which Denney has held since 2006.

A Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee education bill was defeated on the floor of the Senate. Watts said he does not remember in 30 years a JFAC bill dying such a death. Usually, JFAC legislation is considered a given because representatives of both houses work together to draft it.

Six of 10 Senate chairmanships and seven of 14 House chairmanships are
held by new legislators, Watts noted. There also is a new minority leader in the Senate. “Sophomores are sitting as chairs,” he said.

Watts likened the Idaho Legislature to a business where one third of the work force is replaced and told to start work the next day with up to 60 percent of the managers brand new. This session also marked the first time it was mandatory for all legislators to undergo ethics training.

One of the longest debates in the Legislature’s history also happened this session, pertaining to establishing a state health insurance exchange in response to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” taking effect.

The controversial issue was debated for nine hours on the House floor and for seven hours in the Senate, ranking for length of time with when abortion was debated in the Legislature during the early 1990s, Watts said. Full hearings regarding the health care issue took nearly two full months, too.

Despite the high number of freshmen legislators, 542 pieces of legislation were introduced this years as opposed to 546 in 2011 and 450 in 2009. “They were still introducing bills late Friday.”

Nine of the new legislators are from eastern Idaho. Only two of the 14 House chairmen and one of the 10 Senate chairmen come from north of the Salmon River. The rest are from the Treasure Valley, Magic Valley and Southeast Idaho.

“Some of the chairs in the northern part of the state are wishing they lived in the southern part,” Watts said.

This year’s bills seemed to be “more complicated, a little grayer and more
compromised than in the past.” Fourteen of the new legislators emphasized they were determined to vote in the best interest of the state even if it meant going against their leadership.

A measure that would phase out the state’s personal property tax over years now sits on Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s desk for his signature. Lawmakers also tackled a bill pushed by Commerce Director Jeff Sayer that would enable Idaho to better compete against other states by providing $3 million to entice new business to the state.

Some bills, however, failed this session, including one that would create transportation economic development zones, the “Hire One More Employee” (HOME) bill, an Internet sales tax bill and a Medicaid expansion bill.

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