What's the Point?

A lackluster Legislature and its wheel-spinning committee system


It's not a monument to the effectiveness of democracy the now-adjourned Idaho Legislature is leaving in its wake, but a puddle of mixed opinions and mixed results after what most are calling an unimpressive and ineffective session.

How did we get here? Some observers say, look at the summer break. Plans call for just four interim committees during the break in legislative action, a far cry from the 15 convened last year.

Interim committees are scheduled to look at property taxes, medical education in Idaho, natural resources and health care. Jeff Youtz, director of the Legislative Services Office, said there is also talk of task forces to look at transportation, state employee retirement benefits and election laws. But whether the reduced number is detrimental for a legislature coming off an election year depends on two factors: who gets appointed to the committees and how much they get done. The same factors determine if these taxpayer-funded committees are a valuable learning tool for lawmakers or just a waste of money and a stall tactic.

"Interim committees are often a way to give issues time to percolate and learn more about them," said Stephanie Witt, director of the Public Policy Institute at Boise State. "They're also, frankly, a way to put an issue on ice for a while, to give everyone more time to think about it and deal with it [and say], 'We're doing something with this. We're just not sure what.'

"The hope is that you go in and learn what everyone thinks ... but in some cases, all that actually happens is you're stalling," Witt said. "I don't believe the track record for interim committees is really that stellar for affecting wide-sweeping change afterward," she said. "I can't point to anything that happened in this session that was a direct result of interim committee work."

Case in point: the 2007 tax exemptions interim committee. The 14-member joint committee presented an in-depth list of questionable state tax exemptions at the start of the 2008 session, only to have most of its recommendations completely ignored.

"It was frustrating, infuriating," said Sen. David Langhorst, a Boise Democrat who served on the committee.

For Langhorst, it's an example of an effective committee that managed to do a lot of substantive work, but was left to watch the effort go to waste.

Case study No. 2: the family task force headed by Rep. Steven Thayn, a Republican from Emmett. Thayn turned the task force into a tool for his arch-conservative agenda, so much so that other task force members refused to sign off on the final recommendations.

Even House leadership distanced themselves from the group. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, publicly chastised Thayn by saying he got ahead of the rest of the task force. Other legislators even called the task force a waste of money. It costs an average of $10,000 per committee to pay for staffing and travel, according to Youtz.

Additional ineffective committees included the Teachers' Salaries task force. After extensive debate, both the iSTARS proposal by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and a separate teacher pay/bonus package failed to find support. This year, there is no plan to look at the issue further.

Witt said examples like this helped prompt legislative leaders to minimize the amount of interim committees this year. Youtz, for one, is thankful for the cutback in committees. He said his staff was stretched thin last year trying to accommodate the needs of the various legislators. While cost was likely a factor in the committee downsizing, others wonder how much election-year campaigning played into the decision.

"People would rather be out campaigning than working on an interim committee," Langhorst said. Gary Moncrief, professor of political science at Boise State, agreed. While he hasn't pulled the historical numbers, he believes he would find a clear trend of fewer committees in election years. "It all has to do with campaigning," he said.

For many observers, it's quality over quantity when it comes to interim committees.

"The important factor is who gets assigned to them," Langhorst said. "A leader, in the House or the Senate, can appoint someone strategically. If they want to get something done, they know who to appoint."

Those appointments are still to be determined. Legislators won't be assigned to committees until the Legislative Council meets on May 9. And the jury is out when it comes to the ultimate value of interim committees.

"It's uneven on how much they do and how effective they are," said Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at College of Idaho.

Keith Allred, president of the nonpartisan The Common Interest, agreed that the committees have a mixed record and are often used as an avoidance tactic. But he argued that, occasionally, the work that comes out of these committees lays the groundwork for future legislation. He pointed to the property tax interim committee in 2005, whose work led directly to major changes in the homeowners exemption passed in 2006.

"I doubt we would have gotten that done without the interim committee," Allred said. But he was struck by how uninfluential the committees and task forces from 2007 were in the last session.

"This session is characterized by the number of big issues that didn't get dealt with," he said. In addition to transportation, Allred said the state's overcrowded prison system and primary election reform both deserve some additional attention through interim committee work. While 15 is too many, he thinks there should be a few more committees on the Legislature's agenda than the planned four. Interim committees and task forces can be critical in a citizen legislature, where lawmakers only serve part-time.

"The whole point is that we don't have a full-time legislature and they don't have a lot of staff," said John Freemuth, political science professor at Boise State. "[Committees are] a way to get things done."

He qualified that comment by adding that if a committee isn't really going to do much work, then they're "a waste of time."

While Langhorst was frustrated by the lack of attention his tax exemption committee received during the last session, he still believes there is a role for interim committees. He even hopes to serve on one this summer, despite his decision to leave state office to run for a seat on the Ada County Commission.

"There is still value in having [House and Senate members] work together," he said. "For an outside observer, nothing gets done, but anyone who watches the Legislature long enough knows it takes a long time to get something done."