North Idaho doubles clout on state budget panel

The Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meets in March of 2012 in this file photo; at left is Senate Vice-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. The joint committee writes the state budget. (Betsy Russell)
The Idaho Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meets in March of 2012 in this file photo; at left is Senate Vice-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. The joint committee writes the state budget. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Lawmakers from Lewiston north will take up eight of the 20 seats on the Idaho Legislature’s powerful joint budget committee when the legislative session convenes in January, doubling the representation for the region on the budget-writing panel.

“Five of us are in the northern Panhandle, so to the degree there might be northern issues that we all would agree on, we certainly would have the opportunity for some leverage there,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a ninth-term senator who will again serve as the Senate vice-chair of the joint committee.

Clout for North Idaho has varied over the years in the Idaho Legislature, with no North Idaho lawmakers serving in the majority leadership of the House or Senate, either in the past year or the upcoming session; this time, none even ran. The House minority leader is from Lewiston, Rep. John Rusche.

But the budget committee is a place where lawmakers from a region can combine to boost a project from their area, or steer funding their way.

Second-term Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said he’s pleased with his new assignment to the budget panel, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Vick said he’s wanted to get on the joint committee since he arrived in the Senate.

“Not everybody likes to do it, because it is a lot of work and a lot of numbers,” he said. “I spent eight years in the appropriations committee in Montana.” Vick said the panel, which writes the state budget, is “the most important committee,” and said his goal there will be to “keep government spending low.”

Also new to JFAC this year will be Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood; Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow; and Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston; along with new Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston.

They join committee veterans Keough and Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow.

Legislative committee roles and chairmanships were juggled last week at the Legislature’s organizational session, after Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, ousted former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, for the speaker’s post.

Bedke elevated two North Idaho lawmakers to committee chairmanships: Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, will chair the House Business Committee, and Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, will chair the House Ways and Means Committee, a leadership panel.

“That’s a real plus,” Eskridge said.

Overall, the number of committee chairmanships held by North Idaho lawmakers will remain even with last year. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, will remain Senate Education chairman, while former Senate Transportation Chairman Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, retired from the Senate; and former House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, is now a freshman senator.

Much attention is expected to focus this year on the Health and Welfare committees in both houses, with big decisions pending regarding expansion of Idaho’s Medicaid program and options on a health insurance exchange. Senate Health and Welfare includes two North Idaho members, Nuxoll and Schmidt; while House Health and Welfare has four: Henderson; House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston; and new Reps. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, and Ed Morse, R-Hayden.

Another House committee that’s expected to be a center of action is the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which will mull an industry proposal to eliminate the personal property tax on business property. That is the only House committee without a single North Idaho member.

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