As Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and GOP leadership stood before a gathering of Idaho's Statehouse press corps on Friday, Gem State Democrats patiently waited to counterpoint the GOP's outlook for the pending legislative session, expected to include new education reforms and the possibility of phasing out Idaho's personal property taxes. And when House Minority Leader Rep. John Rusche ultimately got his opportunity to speak, he said the wishes of too many Idahoans weren't being heard.
“We’ve heard frustration and, yes, some anger that politicians aren’t listening,” said Rusche. “People want communities that work, they want opportunity for their families and their futures and, of course, they want their legislators to listen to them. We’ll be working on that.”
Democratic leadership remained surprisingly silent compared to their Republican counterparts, in an initial discussion on healthcare, dominated by GOP House Speaker Scott Bedke Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill. Rusche and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett chose to whithold their remarks. And although Rusche and Stennett both mentioned education in their initial statements, they largely abstained from the discussion on education reform later in the panel.
The subject of legislative ethics, however, prompted some of the strongest remarks from Democratic leadership. While Bedke contended that ethical problems within the legislature were more often an issue of oversight than of willful wrongdoing, Stennett argued that Idaho lags in ethics legislation.
“Last year we did a great deal on ethics and tried to get an independent ethics commission in place. We felt very seriously about it, because there was a lack of understanding or a willfulness of not following rules within the House and the Senate,” she said. “We were unable to come to a resolution, but I feel very strongly about continuing conversation about having something in place that’s very firm. We’re one of few states that doesn’t have an independent ethics commission and we should.”
Dems also pushed back against GOP leadership's desire to peal back Idaho’s much-discussed personal property tax.
“I’m really hopeful that we give our small businesses a break and we spur the economy in doing that and come to some middle ground instead of just repealing, said Stennett, adding that some of her constituents reside in counties that are as much as 50 percent funded by Idaho’s $135 million in revenue from personal property tax. “You have to be pretty thoughtful about the impacts of this tax.”
“We’ve talked about doing this incrementally — a little bite at a time and that’s how we can afford it. But that’s shifting money away from the other, necessary functions of government: public schools, corrections, public safety,” he said, calling the tax a “tough problem” for the incoming legislature. “There’s got to be a way to pay for it.”
Rusche’s remarks became more heated during the discussion surrounding funding a partial or complete repeal of the personal property tax with funding that has been shelved in the wake of voter's repeal of the Luna Laws on November 6.
“When the voters spoke, they said that there’s $45 million that you don’t need to spend in public schools, if you want to interpret it that way,” said Bedke. “We have money without a policy to spend it on. In this era of how we’re going to pay for personal property tax, it’s no secret there are people who are eying some of this money.”
But Rusche argued that Democrats were "adamantly opposed to that."
"Funding for public schools is still below where it was four years ago," he said."If the schools need that money, it makes sense to reappropriate that in a manner that allows them to use it. I think the outrage over taking money for public schools and using it to pay off personal property tax is something that not only our caucus but others would find objectionable.”
Stennett said while Democrats remain a sizeable minority in both the House and Senate, she's optimistic for growth.
“I think what we need to do here as we move forward is to keep in mind what the voters have spoken, and try to do the best we can to honor the message that they’re sending to us.” she said.