HEW were the toughest parts

Horman
Representative Wendy Horman (center) at the Idaho Falls City Club. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

 

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
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For Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, the controversial health insurance exchange, education reform and Medicaid issues tackled by lawmakers this year made the 2013 Idaho legislative session one of the most challenging he has experienced. For Wendy Horman, it was her baptism by fire.

Republicans Hill, a Rexburg District 34 senator, and Horman, an Idaho Falls District 30B representative, gave their takes on the recently concluded session as a veteran and a rookie, respectively, at a recent City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon.

This past session was the 12th for Hill, a CPA who serves on the Local Government & Taxation and State Affairs committees, and the first for Horman, a small business owner who serves on the Education, Judiciary, Rules & Administration and Local Government committees.

Hill said the Legislature’s Joint Finance & Appropriations Committee is the envy of many states because of its efficiency. It was informally decided about 25 years ago as part of an unwritten power sharing rule that if someone sat on JFAC, he or she could not chair a committee or be a member of leadership, he said.

“That spread the opportunities around,“ Hill said. “Being in the Legislature is exciting, and it’s frustrating. It’s rewarding, and it’s stressful. There’s always drama.”

Horman said intensive three-day legal training in ethics and procedures enabled freshmen legislators to “hit the ground running. That was not an accident. There’s a very good correlation. … I’m telling you right now, the freshman class were not ninth graders.”

The magnitude of responsibility as a legislator is almost overwhelming, she said, but 11 years on a Bonneville school board helped prepare her for the task at hand.

Horman said process, policy and people had to align as guiding principles when she was a school board member. As a new legislator, she said she had to add a fourth “P” as a principle — politics.

“The partisan world is not something you can overlook or you do so at your own peril,” Horman said, adding a “crud filter” must be applied when processing information as a legislator. She said she was an “abject failure” in answering hundreds of messages flooding her e-mail box.

Many of those e-mails addressed gun control. Hill said legislators resisted pressure to impose gun restrictions and called Idaho one of the most Second Amendment-supportive states in the union.

Hill noted that the percentage of new legislators set a record this past session. Eleven of 35 senators were new; 30 of 70 House representatives were new or about 43 percent. “They didn’t feel as intimidated,” he said of the newcomers.

The 2013 Legislature followed the most contentious primary election season in about 30 years, Hill said, noting the health care exchange dispute was “a wedge driven deeper and deeper right down the middle of the Republican party.” He called it the Legislature’s most contentious and difficult issue.

Legislators rejected a federal health insurance exchange and reluctantly embraced a state-based exchange instead.

“It won’t work as good as now. It will work better than a federal exchange, but your health insurance premiums are going to go up,” Hill warned, adding Republicans do not favor health insurance exchanges. “I’ve never seen the federal government run anything better economically, efficiently and capably than at the state level.”

Because of the time consumed by health insurance exchange debate, Hill said it is unlikely a bill expanding Medicaid would have passed. It has a better chance of being enacted next year, he said. Horman said she was surprised that a Medicaid bill was introduced only about 48 hours before adjournment.

Both sides of the education reform issue also took criticism, Hill said. Voters repealing education reforms enacted by the Legislature caused unintended consequences, he said.

Despite disagreements, Hill said the working relationship between Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, the Senate and House was the best he has seen in years.

“Now as dysfunctional as you may think we are, I’d say we’re a lot less dysfunctional than our old colleagues in Washington.”

The Legislature adopted a balanced budget and increased appropriations by 3 percent as revenues slowly climb back up, but they remain below pre-recession levels.

Individual and corporate taxes were reduced during the session, Hill said. Ninety percent of businesses saw their personal property taxes eliminated at a modest cost to the state, he noted.

The Senate pro tem said Idaho is losing between $120 million to $180 million annually in lost Internet sales tax revenue, which hurts brick-and-mortar companies.

When asked by moderator Karole Honas, a KIFI-TV news anchor, about why the Legislature has reduced financial support for higher education when it is so important for providing good jobs, Hill conceded that is a big concern.

“Quite frankly, when the economy went south, higher education took a much, much greater hit than K-12,” he said. “We have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the nation, but one of the lowest college graduation rates in the nation.”

Mark Mendiola is a writer at Pocatello.

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