March 30, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho Legislature slows to standstill as Dems protest

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

House Chief Clerk Bonnie Alexander reads the full text of a 25-page bill on catastrophic health care on Wednesday, after House Democrats made good on their threat to slow down House action until majority Republicans allow a hearing on two bills the Dems support: A $1.25 cigarette tax increase, and a measure calling for an advisory vote of the people on this year’s school reforms.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Action in the Idaho Legislature slowed to a near-standstill Wednesday, as House Democrats made good on the threat they issued a day earlier to use whatever means they have available to stall the session in protest until majority Republicans allow hearings on two bills.

The Democrats want hearings on a proposed $1.25 increase in Idaho’s 57-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, a proposal that’s been hanging since before the session started but never has been introduced; and a measure calling for an advisory vote of the people on state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s controversial school reform package.

House Assistant Minority Leader Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, said, “It is an outrage that the Legislature refuses to listen to the people. The people of Idaho have clearly voiced their support for a tobacco tax increase and their unrelenting opposition to the education bills. We are prepared to fight to get these bills heard.”

Despite spending practically the entire morning House session on the reading of one 25-page bill after Democrats refused to waive the constitutional requirement for full reading, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said Wednesday he’s still not inclined to allow hearings on the two measures Democrats are advocating. “I don’t think I’d say ‘under no circumstances,’ but I don’t see any value right now,” Denney said.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a physician, said Idaho would benefit greatly from increasing its cigarette tax, both from deterring people from smoking and from garnering $50 million to boost its Medicaid program; lawmakers have been receiving numerous calls and emails supporting the proposed increase. “There are really good public policy reasons to consider this, and not to be able to present this is really a perversion of the process,” Rusche declared.

He also decried the introduction Wednesday morning of two bills to add emergency clauses to the already-passed school reform bills, a move that would prevent a referendum campaign from blocking them from taking effect, though if successful, a referendum still could overturn them in November of 2012. The bills removed most collective bargaining rights from Idaho teachers, and imposed a new merit-pay plan; a third bill, now awaiting House approval, would pay for the merit bonuses and big new technology investments by cutting teacher salary funds.

Rusche said the move appears designed to “speed things up to subvert legal recourse and popular opinion.”

House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who introduced the emergency-clause bills along with Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he doesn’t think Idahoans oppose the school reform bills. “I don’t see this overwhelming outcry to do anything - I’m hearing good support up home,” Nonini said.

He said the new emergency-clause bills “take care of the business we need to take care of.”

The cigarette tax bill was sponsored by House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, and a coalition of health care groups; it would have raised an additional $51 million for the state’s Medicaid program. But Lake never introduced the bill, saying there wasn’t enough support among Republicans on the House Tax Committee to move it out of committee.

House Republican leaders called a press conference Wednesday afternoon to decry the Democrats’ tactics and insist they won’t hold hearings on the two bills. Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “The legislative process has been used and found that there’s not support for those hearings.” But neither of those bills has been introduced, and he couldn’t point to what legislative process had determined the lack of support.

Idaho lawmakers are hoping to wrap up this year’s legislative session within the next week and a half.

Denney said, “We’re going to continue. It’s certainly their prerogative to make us read bills, and we’ll do that.” He said, “We will work late, and we will probably work Saturday and Sunday if that’s what it takes.”

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