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Idaho House freshmen band together on exchange bill

House freshmen at a press conference say they'll support the governor's health insurance exchange bill if their companion bill passes, adding more legislative oversight. (Betsy Russell)
House freshmen at a press conference say they'll support the governor's health insurance exchange bill if their companion bill passes, adding more legislative oversight. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Sixteen Idaho House GOP freshmen, led by Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, have banded together to propose changes to Gov. Butch Otter’s health insurance exchange bill, saying if their changes pass, they’ll back Otter’s bill.

That’s close to enough votes to put the governor’s controversial measure over the top in the highly conservative Idaho House; the bill is now pending in the Senate, after clearing a Senate committee last week on an 8-1 vote.

The GOP governor, an outspoken opponent of the national health care reform law, recommended that Idaho form a state exchange under the law only after months of study by a task force he appointed. If Idaho doesn’t act, the federal government will run Idaho’s exchange, an online marketplace where Idahoans will be able to shop for health insurance plans and access government subsidies.

Malek, 31, a former Kootenai County deputy prosecutor who’s among the Legislature’s youngest members, said, “We refuse to give in to pressure from interested lobbies and existing leadership. Instead, we choose to side with the people this decision will affect.”

The House Health and Welfare Committee voted to introduce the freshman representatives’ bill on Wednesday morning, with just one dissenting vote. The thrust of the bill is to provide more legislative oversight of the new state-operated insurance exchange, including adding two lawmakers to the exchange board as non-voting members and adding reporting and transparency requirements. “This legislation forces each move of the exchange into the public eye,” Malek said.”It gives the Legislature the power to shut the project down and return it to the federal government if our demands are not met.”

The one vote against introducing the bill in the committee came from House GOP Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, who said afterward, “I’m against a state exchange. Why would I vote for something that helps create it?”

But the freshmen said it wasn’t that simple. Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, said, “Legislation is a complicated process. … None of us liked the choices that we were given. None of us felt the protections in the existing bill were adequate. So we formed this group. We can pretty well say no state act will pass without our support, and the current bills did not garner our support. So this is an attempt, we believe, to end up with more assurances, better protections, and represent our constituents.”

The group doesn’t include all of the Idaho House’s huge freshman class, but it does include two-thirds of the 24 House GOP freshmen. Malek, Morse and Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, were the North Idaho freshmen in the group; not participating was freshman Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene.

“We’re freshmen,” said Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa. “I think everybody here recognizes the fact that individually we have no influence. … Let’s stand together.”

The group formed after hallway conversations, its members said, over how they oppose the national health care reform law, but don’t like the idea of just letting the federal government do as it wishes and run a federal exchange in Idaho.

Malek said, “The Legislature needs information that will allow us to decide whether our state exchange is providing us a seat at the table or forcing us merely to be a puppet for the federal government.”

Malek said he’s “honored” to work with the group of freshman lawmakers, saying, “We have spent a lot of time together.” He said, “They have shown passion, integrity. … Their mission is to protect individual rights and state sovereignty.”

The first-time lawmakers all said they’re committed to supporting the governor’s insurance exchange bill, SB 1042, if their bill passes – and won’t support it if theirs doesn’t. “That’s why we’re here,” said Rep. Kelly Packer, R-McCammon, to nods all around.

They also said they could see their group taking positions on other issues that arise in the Legislature as well.

Malek said representatives of the group met with Gov. Butch Otter and with House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill before bringing forward their legislation. The process was an intense one that just came together in the last few days, he said.

Otter’s chief of staff, David Hensley, said the governor “understands what they’re trying to do and appreciates their effort.” He said, “The governor believes that it complements SB 1042.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “We’ll be talking about this bill in our caucus.” He said, “I think this is good work from good legislators who are saying … we want to have our voice heard, so we’re going to find a way to make it louder.”

Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said the freshman lawmakers’ bill wouldn’t sway his group from its vocal stand again Otter’s bill. “It’s still very, very bad,” Hoffman said. “We’re still opposed.”