Legislative Democrats gave their response to GOP Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State and budget message this morning, and they weren't happy. “The governor has talked about budget, education, taxes, employment and reserves. All of these issues are important, but it is really hard to govern if there is little confidence that government serves their interests,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said of Idahoans. “It is unfortunate that the governor has failed to address the culture of arrogance and entitlement that is pervasive in the Legislature and GOP leadership.”
The minority Democrats noted that they've introduced numerous ethics bills over the years that in many cases were ignored. “We hope this year will be different,” Rusche said.
There already have been signs of that: Shortly before the start of the session, GOP House Speaker Lawerence Denney expressed support for establishing an independent Idaho ethics commission, a measure Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce on Thursday. And GOP Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said he'd already contacted Denney about new financial disclosure legislation, though he'd not yet heard back.
Said Rusche, “We invite the majority party to partner with us and show that we are ready to face the ethical issues head-on, and begin to restore the confidence of the people in our state institutions.” The independent ethics commission, he said, would be a “crucial first step,” saying, “People need to feel like they have a voice and complaints don't disappear.”
The minority party, which holds just 20 of the Legislature's 105 seats, also differed sharply with Otter on his priorities for the state budget for next year. “He … suggests that a vague, ill-defined tax break costing $45 million is more valuable than defined and focused job development activities,” Rusche said. “We need a tax policy that is stable and fair to all the people, while generating enough to support the vital public structures that we all depend on - schools and colleges, roads, telecommunications, courts and public safety.”
The Democrats said their No. 1 priority is “getting back to work,” and noted the “iJOBS” package of legislation they proposed unsuccessfully two years ago. They have more coming along those lines, they said. One area of the governor's proposals that drew praise: the IGEM proposal, which would fund university research to encourage technology transfer that creates jobs. “We'll likely support that quite strongly, because hey, two years ago it was part of our package,” Rusche said. “I think there is much more.”
While Otter's budget restores none of recent years' budget cuts except for a partial restoration of grant programs at the state Department of Commerce, the Democrats said their priorities are first to restore education funding so that “we're not losing teacher/student contact;” second to restore cuts to services that are actually costing the state or local governments more money, like trimming mental health services while driving up incarceration; and third to look at “the maintenance of the property and buildings the state of Idaho owns,” for which maintenance funds have been trimmed through the recession years. Said Rusche, “I think to say, well, we've got enough money for tax breaks, we have enough money to put into a savings account, but we don't have enough money to restore the services that civilization depends upon, I think is fallacious thinking.”
Despite their small numbers, the Democrats said they expect to work with the majority and influence this year's debate. “I think there's a number of areas here where not only will they want us to work with them, they'll need us to work with them,” Rusche said, “because frankly, in the House that 36th vote is going to be hard to come by.”