Politics are heating up in North Idaho.
Former state Sen. Mike Jorgenson, who’s running for the Senate seat he lost two years ago to an ally of tax-protesting Rep. Phil Hart, is asking GOP candidates in Legislative District 2 to join him in signing a pledge that they will “obey the law, honor Idaho courts and pay my taxes.” Jorgenson calls it the “Republican Principle Pledge” and openly acknowledges it’s designed to rally Republican voters embarrassed by Hart’s continuing legal battles over unpaid state and federal taxes.
“I hope they all sign it,” said Jorgenson, a Republican from Hayden Lake, who said he was prompted by Hart’s continuing tax and legal fights. “Quite frankly, people are so disillusioned with the antics of Phil Hart and the embarrassment that it’s caused the county, the state, the party, that I thought it a good thing to make it a commitment to the constituents that the candidates would not have any part of that behavior.”
In full, the pledge says the candidate promises “to the citizens of Kootenai County to be honest, have integrity, obey the law, honor Idaho courts and pay my taxes.”
Fritz Wiedenhoff, of Rathdrum, who’s among three Republicans challenging Hart in the May 15 primary, said, “I think it’s great, I think it’s fantastic. I think it encompasses everything we are and we should be, and I’m planning on signing it.”
Ed Morse, also a Hart GOP challenger, said he, too, plans to sign the pledge. “I think it may highlight some differences between some of the candidates,” he said. “I pay my taxes; I believe that all public office holders should not only perform lawfully but they should uphold the public trust.”
Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, who defeated Jorgenson two years ago and whom Jorgenson is challenging in the primary, dismissed the pledge as “grandstanding.” He said, “I have some concerns that Mike already has not obeyed that, so I guess it doesn’t carry much weight with me.”
Asked what he meant, Vick cited Jorgenson’s recent comments that with high turnover in the Senate, his six years of service there could give him the seniority to nab a committee chairmanship. “He comes back in as a freshman,” Vick said. “He’ll be at the head of his freshman class, but he doesn’t have any seniority other than that.”
Senate rules are murky, with selection of committee chairs left to the discretion of the Senate president pro-tem, but Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said in assigning committee chairmanships, the Senate generally follows its seniority rules for selection of seats in the Senate chamber, which favor consecutive service over non-consecutive, though both still count.
Vick also cited Jorgenson’s 2009 vote on one of several gas-tax and fee-increase bills considered that year; none of them passed. “He claims … that he didn’t vote to raise the gas tax, and he did vote to raise the gas tax,” Vick said.
The bill, HB 96, started as a measure proposed by Gov. Butch Otter to eliminate a tax break for ethanol; it passed the House unanimously. Then it was amended twice in the Senate, adding a series of registration and license fee increases and a gas tax hike – 6 cents per gallon in two 3-cent phases. It passed the Senate 21-14 with Jorgenson supporting it; the amended bill then died in the House on a 15-55 vote.
Jorgenson said, “It was a very small gas tax increase. The heart of … what we were trying to do was to increase all of the non-gas possibilities” to step up transportation funding in the state, a focus of Otter’s that year. The House had earlier defeated a larger gas tax hike.
Jorgenson said, “I expected that these guys, or some of these guys, would look for a way not to sign the pledge. … This is for the benefit of the constituents in the area; it’s not for me. So I’m not the least bit surprised that he’d find some lame reason not to make that commitment to the constituents.”
Hart, R-Athol, and Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about the pledge; nor could Hart challenger Ron Vieselmeyer.
Mark Fisher, a Hayden businessman who is challenging Barbieri in the primary, said he’ll sign the pledge. “I think we do have a call to high ethical standards,” he said. “A high standard is expected, so I’m more than happy to sign on.”