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Defiant Idaho House GOP refuses to budge

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and other House GOP leaders, at a press conference Monday, say they're just not willing to support any gas tax increase this year, despite Gov. Butch Otter's pleas. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and other House GOP leaders, at a press conference Monday, say they're just not willing to support any gas tax increase this year, despite Gov. Butch Otter's pleas. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – On the 113th day of Idaho’s legislative session Monday, senators killed more than a dozen House bills, GOP Gov. Butch Otter appealed for compromise, and defiant House GOP leaders refused again to back their governor’s call for a gas tax increase to cover a big backlog in road maintenance.

“I think it’s disappointing that the impasse is making such dysfunctional government,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

Otter’s Republican Party holds supermajorities in both the House and the Senate, but he’s been unable to persuade House GOP leaders to sign onto his transportation initiative, Otter’s top priority since he took office.

The first-term governor and former three-term GOP congressman began by asking for $240 million more a year in transportation funding. This year, he’s dropped down, in stages, all the way to $75 million. Plus, he’s proposed to delay the onset of the gas tax increase for two years, and then phase it in over another two years.

“We’ve kept backing it down,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary. “The governor has been very responsive. … We’re still here working, and we’ll be here until it’s resolved.”

But House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, “We think it’s prudent to wait until we see when the economy has in fact bottomed out, before we go ahead and pass a gas tax.”

The House attempted to unilaterally adjourn the extraordinarily long legislative session on Wednesday night, but because the Senate didn’t follow suit, the state Constitution required House members to be back in session Monday. They were, but only grudgingly.

Denney said the House will again attempt to unilaterally adjourn the session this week, “If that’s what it takes.”

House GOP leaders maintain they just don’t have the votes to pass a gas tax increase; various versions have failed six times in House votes this year. But in the three of those votes that were recorded, a total of 40 of the 70 House members voted for one or another of the increases.

In the final vote against raising the gas tax, on HB 96a, only four Republicans voted in favor of the bill, amid arguments that the Senate had infringed on the House’s role by amending the tax increase into a bill that previously addressed only an ethanol exemption.

At that point, Otter asked House leaders to try again – create a House bill with those provisions, and see if it would pass. But they never did.

“We can’t get it done,” Denney said Monday after a closed-door meeting of the House GOP caucus. “Quite frankly, our caucus is tired of voting on gas tax bills.”

House Republican leaders haven’t met with Otter since last Wednesday, the day they attempted to unilaterally adjourn.

Mike Moyle, House majority leader, said, “We are talking to the governor – maybe not face to face, but there are communications going on.”

Meanwhile, relations between the House and Senate, which has stood by the governor, soured further on Monday. The Senate Finance Committee met and killed 15 budget bills that the House had attempted to introduce and pass on its own, sidestepping the usual joint House-Senate budget committee.

“I felt they were outside the statute,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “As imperfect as the joint committee might be, it’s still one of the best systems in the nation.”

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said, “It’s an efficient and effective process for developing budgets and approving budgets.” Moves like the House’s to undermine that joint approach, he said, would be “a disservice to all the citizens of Idaho.”

The Senate Education Committee also met Monday, and killed legislation from House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, to eliminate an early retirement incentive program for teachers. Senators had specifically refused earlier to eliminate the program. The House already has agreed with the Senate on that, and sent legislation to the governor, but then Nonini introduced the new bill, and it passed the House.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “Now it appears that they’re trying to cherry-pick what they wanted, vs. what we wanted.” And Sen. Dick Sagness, D-Pocatello, said, “I find it deplorable in many ways that Rep. Nonini would bring this forward, considering the circumstances that exist here. It’s a waste of our time and the taxpayers’ money.”

Nonini didn’t show up for the hearing, a move that also raised senators’ eyebrows.

Afterward, he said, “The issues have all been discussed. … There was no reason for me to be there.”

When told the committee members had questions for him, Nonini said, “Just to be critical and be smart-alecks – I’m not going to go over there and put up with that. I’m not going to put up with that crap.”

On Tuesday morning, the legislative session will go into its 114th day. If it’s still going by next Monday, it’ll become the longest Idaho legislative session ever, surpassing 2003’s 118-day legislative marathon.

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