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The new bloc

weatherby JAMES

Introducing here James Weatherby, whose column will begin appearing here periodically. Weatherby is a political analyst, emeritus professor and former lobbyist who lives in Boise. He is a former professor at Boise State University and a former executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities.

Going into this year’s Idaho legislative session there was a lot of talk about the first-year class and speculation about its potential impact. The biggest bloc of newcomers are Republican House members who represent over 40% of the GOP House caucus.

This huge class is largely due to redistricting, retirements, and the migration to the Senate of several of last year’s House members.

Speaker Scott Bedke has had many kind words to say about these new House members – understandable to some degree because they no doubt helped provide the margin of victory for his historic election as Speaker. But he should be impressed, regardless. They have interesting, diverse backgrounds and many have local government leadership experience. Eventually dubbed by the media as the “gang of 16,” this group is from across the state. Every region is represented: 3 (northern), 4 (southwestern), 3 (southcentral), and 6 (southeastern).

Their coming together was one of the more interesting stories in recent Idaho legislative politics. As a group force, unlike some of their earlier predecessors, these rookies have not been bashful. Their most notable action was their support of a “trailer bill” to strengthen legislative oversight of a proposed state health insurance exchange. If the oversight language were added, these freshmen would support the exchange. From all appearances their 16 (later only 14) votes turned out to be crucial to the final passage of the exchange legislation. Fourteen votes represented a big share of the 36 votes needed to pass this highly controversial House bill.

The defection of the two original “gang” members who ultimately voted no denied Speaker Scott Bedke a majority of his own caucus in support of the biggest bill of this legislative session. The GOP House caucus split 28-29 on the measure. Democratic votes were necessary to pass the bill – a rather rare occurrence.

The close vote illustrates a significantly divided caucus which comes as no real surprise. The 2 final defections also are indicative of the intense pressure applied to all members and maybe more specifically to the freshmen who were barely settled into their new positions before they were required to vote on what may be the defining vote of their legislative careers.

The emergence of this coalition is a reminder of the rather large freshman and sophomore classes in the 1980s primarily created by a major change in legislative redistricting. Fourteen House seats were added by a judicially imposed redistricting plan which enlarged the House from 70 members to 84.

Freshmen Representatives Jerry Deckard (R-Eagle) and Dean Haagenson (R-Coeur d’Alene) were the leaders of what became known as the “Steelhead Caucus” named for fish who swim upstream. These moderates were in very conservative waters in their own caucus.

During the 1980s and 1990s the “Steelheads” had several major policy victories (increased funding for education, for example) as well as helping to elect a centrist (or less conservative) Speaker: Tom Boyd sharply differed in leadership style and, to a degree, ideological orientation from the former Speaker Tom Stivers. One cannot understand the legislative politics of that era without taking into account the significant contributions of this informal caucus.

The other significant coalition in Idaho history that comes to mind was the “economy bloc” of conservative Senate Democrats (yes, Democrats) and Republicans, largely from rural areas. In the 1950s and 1960s this bloc developed their own proposed budgets, had potent public relations campaigns, and played a major role in defeating appropriation and revenue measures not to their liking. They were especially lethal in their attack on sales tax proposals.

The future is not clear for this present day alliance. Is their interest and influence just the health insurance exchange around which they can all agree or are there underlying ideological or value orientations that bind them together? – too soon to tell. But at least their actions and rhetoric injected some much needed pragmatism in a legislative debate that tended to focus as much on socialism and tyranny as on the real question before the Legislature (and a limited one at that): are we going to have a federal or a state exchange in Idaho?

Time will tell whether the combined influence of these freshmen extend beyond this session. The politics of 2014 will also determine how many of them lose their jobs because of closed Republican primary contests where the ideologues who rail against the implementation of “Obamacare” have far more clout than in a general election. It’s not inconceivable that in 2015 we’ll be talking about another large first-year class whose tilt will be much farther right, determined to undo the “mistakes” of their predecessors. Such a turn of events would be a notable loss to the citizens of Idaho.

The Idaho legislature can benefit from more independent thinking, problem
solving legislators who are willing to take on major issues in the coming
years. At the very least, let’s hope they support adequate funding for all levels of education, deal with our state and local transportation needs, and extend anti-discriminatory legislation for all Idahoans.

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