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Call it the ‘I’m not Phil Hart’ pledge

Has Mike Jorgenson lost his mind?

Or will he simply prove that the residents of his Hayden Lake legislative district have not lost theirs?

Jorgensen is a longtime Idaho Republican in the not-crazy sense of the word. Which is to say he favors lower taxes, but believes in paying them – unlike tax cheat, timber thief and comically inept civil engineer Phil Hart. Jorgenson is running in Idaho’s GOP primary on May 15, and he has signed and circulated a pledge in which he promises to pay his taxes and otherwise follow the law.


“People are embarrassed by what Phil Hart has done,” said Jorgenson. “It’s a reflection on the county. It’s a reflection on the party. It’s a reflection on the state.”

Finally. A tax pledge that a politician ought to sign, preposterous as it might seem. Of course, not all of them are – notably Sen. Steve Vick, a fellow traveler of Hart’s out there on the tip of the wing, where raw milk and alternative currencies are seen as the pressing issues of the day. Jorgenson is challenging Vick for a Senate seat, and I hope the fact that he’s embarassable doesn’t hurt his chances.

What Phil Hart has done, in a nutshell: not paid a boatload of federal taxes; not paid a smaller boatload of state taxes, while accepting a state-tax-supported paycheck; not paid for timber that he stole from state land, timber that is supposed to be used to raise money for schools. Hart calls these “rumors.” He attempted to use his status as a non-tax-paying-but-tax-paid legislator to excuse himself from meeting deadlines and following the rules. He tried to paint himself as some sort of conservative hero, martyred by the media and the courts and the IRS for daring to speak the dangerous truth that … wait for it … the income tax is unconstitutional.

He gets laughed out of court on a regular basis, which he takes simply as further evidence of the conspiracy against him.

Are people in his district embarrassed by what Phil Hart has done? It has sometimes seemed like there was more dumb pride than embarrassment – a sense that he is a conservative hero, martyred by the media and the courts and the IRS.

Jorgenson said that view sells his community short. A fiscal and social conservative who stops short of the utter outlier status that the Idaho GOP sometimes seems to be striving for, Jorgenson said most voters did not know the full extent of Hart’s chicanery before they last sent him back to Boise.

“The assumption that people have been voting for Phil, knowing that he has these problems, is incorrect,” said Jorgenson. “They didn’t know the extent of his problems.”

This seems arguable. A good bit of Hart’s tax-dodging was well-known at the time of his re-election in 2010. But Jorgenson lives there and knows the people far better than I do, and it would be nice to believe that he’s correct. The owner of The Capo restaurant, Jorgenson is a former Hayden Lake city councilman and state senator. Vick defeated him in 2010, and has scorned the promise-to-pay-taxes pledge as “grandstanding.”

Grandstanding. Showboating. Utter ostentation.

Jorgenson acknowledges that signing a pledge to obey the laws and pay your taxes might seem redundant, given that lawmakers take an oath of office that covers a lot of the same ground. Of course, that oath hasn’t exerted all that much binding force on Hart.

“Even though we take an oath of office, which Phil Hart did, there’s nothing to be lost by making a pledge to the voters that I’m not going to do what he’s done,” he said.

It’s a strange moment when someone has to make a pledge to be better than awful, a promise to not be a criminal, but that’s where things stand. We live in interesting times. Usually, political pledges are stunt politics for one-issue cranks – taxes, abortion, gay marriage. They trap lawmakers into corners that hurt their ability to solve problems. The Idaho Republican Party last year required candidates to sign a loyalty oath, pledging to abide by the party’s platforms, which included a variety of crackpot planks.

This kind of enforced lockstep is ideal, if you like robots and distrust humans. To my way of thinking, it prevents people from making the most minor concessions for the greater good – witness last year’s federal budget negotiations, which derailed over the GOP’s refusal to accept getting a mere 95 percent of its way. We’re certain to see another battle over this kind of intellectual lockdown in the coming year, as Congress and the president revisit the budget, the debt ceiling – all the greatest hits.

Jorgenson’s pledge would seem silly, but for the simple fact of Phil Hart. At least two of Hart’s primary opponents have signed it. Good for them. Somebody needs to give voters in Hayden Lake the chance to show that they, too, do not consider it ridiculous to simply say, as Jorgenson does: “Nobody likes to pay taxes. But we have to pay our fair share.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.