And Away We Go

Special session over, the political season is under way


As he walked from the floor of the House after voting 'Yes,' to Gov. Jim Risch's tax shift proposal, Bill Sali seemed as confident as usual. The Kuna Republican, who is running a well-financed race for Congress in Idaho's District 1, had been challenged by his Democratic opponent, Larry Grant, to vote against the bill.

"Why would I do the wrong thing, when he challenged me to do it?" Sali said.

The scenario, he said, reminded him of the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, wherein a group of schoolboys "triple-dog-dare" one of their peers to stick his tongue to a frozen flagpole, with predictable results.

Sali, who proclaimed himself a believer in "supply-side economics" when he voted to approve Risch's plan, said he doubted the move would hurt him in the next two months going into the November elections.

"With some people, it will resonate in both directions," Sali said. "The position I took will resonate with the majority, who believe this is a good idea."

Risch's plan, which cuts property taxes that are linked to property values, and shifts the school-funding burden over to an increased sales tax, passed both houses.

Shortly after the vote, Grant issued a statement to say he was surprised that Sali would take the position.

"I never expected Bill Sali to vote for a 20 percent increase in the sales tax," said Grant.

Sali wasn't worried, and neither, it seemed, were other leaders in his party. For evidence of Republican confidence, Democrats needed only to listen to Rep. Mike Moyle, the assistant majority leader from Star, during an abbreviated hearing in the House Revenue and Tax Committee. While Democrats protested the bill and the procedures being taken to ramrod it through the House, Moyle flipped open his cell phone and turned aside.

"Be patient. It's coming," Moyle said, in the middle of Democratic Rep. Elmer Martinez's testimony. As Martinez paused, Moyle shrugged. "Sorry, I had to call the Speaker."

Shortly afterward, the bill was out and headed for its successful House floor vote.

The question now is how the debate will affect fall elections. Both sides, as Sali indicated, seem optimistic about the effect the session will have.

As they faced a railroading in the Legislature, Democrats seemed chipper, and even hopeful.

"We're gonna get slaughtered," said a smiling Idaho Democratic Party spokesman Chuck Oxley on the eve of the session. "But at least we'll get seen waving the sword."

Almost no Democrat suspected that they had a chance of altering the outcome. Risch's Republican majority had its marching orders and carried them out with few hiccups.

But along the way, Republicans may have handed Democrats something they could not assemble themselves in past legislative sessions: the opportunity to create a coherent, unified message about an issue most Idahoans readily grasp. In the month that passed before the session, Democrats came up with a property tax relief proposal of their own that was simple to explain and avoided the poison pill of a sales tax increase, something that gave many conservative Republicans pause. Once Democrats had their plan in place, Idaho's minority party began singing the same tune in the same key.

"Gov. Risch has unwittingly given us this massive opportunity, and we've fully capitalized on it," said Brian Cronin, chairman of the Ada County Democrats. After prodding the press to report on their alternative plan, and wrangling their membership into consistent statements, the Democrats appeared as they haven't in a while: unified and visible.

"In this case, they really have stood up," said Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus of the Boise State political science department, as he paced the hallways of the Capitol on Friday. "They won't win this battle, but they have been unified and coherent in their message."

"It's a gift," said Jerry Brady, the Democrat running for governor.

In fact, the session may be a boon to candidates from both sides. As lawmakers went about their business, several candidates for legislative and other offices trolled the Capitol looking for cameras and attention. Most visible was Tom Luna, the Republican running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. As the cameras rolled during Risch's triumphant end-of-session news conference, Luna lined up with lawmakers as though he had cast a vote himself and was a part of the winning team.

Welcome to the 2006 political season. With the kids back in school and summer vacation over, Idaho's electorate might now be receptive to politics, and the stage is set for the remainder of the 60-day runup to the November election.

The flurry began Friday in the capital, but behind-the-scenes preparations had begun weeks ago, with campaign staff building advertisements for television and radio, and debates getting set for the marquee races.

In the relatively quiet race for governor, Republican Butch Otter already has a series of autobiographical ads up on his Web site. The Republican Congressman is seen looking like a Gem State version of Ronald Reagan, moseying around on a horse and smiling broadly in stock photographs.

For his part, Brady said his campaign will have their ads up by the end of September.

With the tax vote as the largest political event in an otherwise quiet summer, voters might expect to see more ads and speeches that touch upon the quick session's results.

Democrats think time might be on their side. Because of the timing of tax legislation and tax billing procedures, voters will first see the thing they don't like: a hike in their sales tax, courtesy of the Legislature. Once Risch signs the bill this week, a 1 percent sales tax increase will take effect October 1, a month before the general election.

"This is going to resonate all the way to November," Brady said. "People are going to remember this."

The sweetener of the property tax reduction won't take effect until December 20, well after the election.

That could come back to haunt lawmakers and others hoping to hang their hat on the tax session, said Sen. Hal Bunderson, a retiring Meridian Republican who chaired the Senate's Local Government and Taxation Committee for the final time last week. Bunderson was one of few Republicans who opposed Risch's plan.

"I believe when you go to your constituents, when people realize what's occurred, they won't be very happy about it," Bunderson said. "They won't remember the arguments espoused here. They'll remember how much money is left in their pockets."

If he felt any concern during the raucous debate Friday night, Risch wasn't showing it. While the Senate upended itself and forced the Senate secretary to read aloud every page of the 30-page bill, Risch and First Lady Vicki Risch stepped out into the cool night air, and took a leisurely walk around the Capital blocks, waiting.