January 18, 2010 in Idaho

Idaho Dems shut down open caucuses

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Idaho’s House and Senate minority caucuses have voted to close their meetings to the public, saying they don’t want Republicans to get a glimpse of their game plan.

“To maximize our effectiveness in the Legislature, we must take the field with every advantage that we can muster,” said House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello.

Democratic caucuses in both the House and Senate have been open to the public for nearly a decade, while majority Republican caucuses remained closed.

“This change is effective immediately,” Democratic leaders from both houses announced Monday morning in a press release; Democrats from both houses went into a closed-door caucus immediately after issuing the release.

“It was unanimous,” said Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise. “It was a strategic decision.”

Though Idaho’s party caucuses traditionally have met behind closed doors, there’s been little public support for the practice. In 2003, the annual Boise State University Public Policy Survey, a respected statewide poll, found that 76 percent of Idahoans thought all the caucuses should be open, and only 8 percent thought they should remain closed.

Ruchti said, “I think our constituents will certainly weigh in on it, and if they dislike closed caucuses, they’ll have the ability to let us know - they usually do that at the polls.”

Under pressure from media groups and others, the House Minority Caucus opened its meetings to the public in 2001, and the Senate Democratic Caucus opened up in 2002.

The majority caucuses in both houses opted to remain closed, but in 2003 House Republicans adopted a new caucus policy limiting what their caucus can do in closed-door meetings, saying closed sessions will be held only to develop party political policy or to elect party leaders, promising that no legislation will be drafted in closed-door caucuses, and saying that “discussion of any public policy issue, including legislation, shall be for educational and informational purposes only.”

Caucuses are meetings of each party’s members in the House or Senate. Though the state Constitution requires all the business of the Legislature to be conducted in public, party caucus meetings traditionally have been closed.

That’s aroused increasing controversy in the past decade, as the Republican caucus took in such a large majority that it nearly constituted the entire Legislature. In 2001, a major package of tax-cut legislation was crafted in extended closed-door meetings of the Senate Republican Caucus, which at that time held all but three of the seats in the Senate.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who was House minority leader when the Democrats decided to open the doors, won an open government award in 2001 for her caucus’ decision. But she said Monday that she supports the closure move. “I just think we need a chance to help develop our own policy ourselves - it’s better for our districts,” she said.

Said Ruchti, “What it does for you is it allows you to have disagreements in an environment where you can be comfortable having disagreements. It allows you to explore ideas that are not fully developed. … We’re doing it with the intention of becoming better representatives of our constituents.”

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