Right about Easter Idaho lawmakers, in their eagerness to get out of town, hold the equivalent of a political egg hunt. Some legislation turns out to be hidden gems--receiving minimal splash in the media but are abundant with good intentions. Yet, there are always a few stinkers in the basket--borne of political derision.
True to form, the 2012 Legislature left scores of Easter eggs, disguised as laws, rules or budget amendments, throughout the Capitol. A few were admired by practically everyone (more money for higher education, funding for a statewide suicide hot line), but more than a few others, regarding the environment, ethics and health care, left some like Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, the Republican majority and the Idaho Freedom Foundation grinning, while the Idaho Democrats said the GOP had run roughshod.
"Representative democracy requires that the people believe their senators, representatives and state officials work for them, work for their districts and the state, and most importantly, work for the common good," said Lewiston Democratic Rep. John Rusche. "They and we can no longer rely on the fox to guard the henhouse."
Among Republican-sponsored legislation incurring Rusche's wrath were a trio of ethics-related bills that came in the wake of a special ethics-panel probe into New Plymouth Republican Sen. Monty Pearce's personal dealings with the oil and gas industry while shepherding oil and gas legislation through his Senate Resources and Environment Committee [BW, News, Monty Pearce's Push, March 14, 2012]. Charges of violating conflict of interest rules were dismissed but even Pearce later conceded he should have disclosed the conflict in his committee hearings.
Under that shadow, lawmakers passed a new rule requiring senators to disclose conflicts of interest in committees as well as on the Senate floor. But senators also approved a resolution that would filter future ethics complaints through a behind-closed-doors executive session, which would determine if the charges warranted further investigation. The public would have no access to the executive meetings and senators would even be forbidden to disclose their contents.
"We're gagging every senator," said Boise Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk in a losing debate. "We'll be expected to somehow not say anything with a violation of the ethics rules, the rules of the Senate, hanging over us. This will not instill public confidence; it will erode public confidence."
But Otter had nothing but praise when the Legislature finally went sine die on March 29.
"I think it was a great session," said Otter on March 30. "In fact, I would give it a solid 'A.'"
Otter remained tight-lipped on another issue--a state-run insurance exchange--which he had expressed early support for. In fact, the proposal never even received a committee hearing in either the House or Senate.
"The business lobby, the governor and big insurance were all lined up to pass [an exchange]," Wayne Hoffman, founder of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, wrote to the organization's membership. "Thankfully, efforts to move ahead were abandoned in the last days of the session."
Also abandoned was Boise Republican Sen. Chuck Winder's controversial measure that would have required Idaho women to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion, with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest.
"The public made it clear that no matter where in the state they live and no matter where on the political spectrum they are, the government mandating an ultrasound for political and not medical reasons is the very definition of government intrusion," said Hannah Brass, Legislative Director of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest in Idaho.
Proponents promised to revisit the ultrasound effort in 2013. When they do, they'll have plenty of new arms to twist. Twenty-five lawmakers retired after this year's session and more than a few will be left on the sidelines as they run against one another because of redistricting and new challengers in the May primary and November general election.