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Billboards target Idaho lawmakers in their districts

The Idaho Freedom Foundation says it will put up more billboards like this one in Burley, criticizing local legislators' votes on the state health insurance exchange.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation says it will put up more billboards like this one in Burley, criticizing local legislators' votes on the state health insurance exchange.

BOISE – Billboards bashing Idaho legislators for their votes on a state insurance exchange have begun popping up in their legislative districts.

Idaho Freedom Foundation chief Wayne Hoffman says the signs are part of his group’s lobbying campaign to get Idaho’s exchange repealed in the legislative session that starts in January, but others say the effort appears aimed at Idaho’s upcoming 2014 elections, in which every seat in the Idaho Legislature will be on the ballot.

“That looks a lot more like campaigning than lobbying to me,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics. “It’s not a traditional way of lobbying the Legislature to use billboards – in fact, I’m hard-pressed to give an example of that.”

Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, who is among those targeted by name on the signs, said he views his local billboard – which is right near the hospital where he practices medicine – as an “effort to try to gin up a political opponent” for him in May’s GOP primary. “I think that’s what it’s designed to do, to be very blunt about it,” he said. “It’s political advertising.”

Hoffman, whose organization, a tax-exempt charity, is prohibited by law from engaging in campaigning, said, “We don’t get involved in elections – this has nothing to do with elections. It has to do with public policy.”

He added, “They are a vehicle for lobbying lawmakers as well as the general public on an issue that will be before the Legislature in the 2014 legislative session.”

Wood countered, “They push that envelope all the time.”

Two of the billboards have gone up so far; Hoffman said more are in the works. The first, in Burley, targets Wood, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. The second, in Mountain Home, names Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, and Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson.

“They didn’t need to implement Obamacare,” the billboards declare, with the word “didn’t” in bright-red italics. Then, the Mountain Home billboard says, “Rep. Rich Wills voted for it. Sen. Bert Brackett voted for it.” That’s followed by a large red statement, “Repeal the insurance exchange in 2014!” and the foundation’s logo and website address. The Burley sign is identical, but with the three District 27 lawmakers named.

Wood said, “I think it is terribly misleading … that we somehow brought Obamacare to the state of Idaho, the three of us. … That’s such a far-fetched idea as to be ludicrous.”

He noted that states had two choices: Start their own insurance exchanges, or let the federal government run an exchange for their state. “Idaho whenever given a choice has always opted to do things the Idaho way,” Wood said, “because we’ve always been able to do it better, and we’ve always been able to do it cheaper.”

A physician, he noted that defaulting to a federal exchange would have put the federal government in the position of regulating Idaho’s health insurance market. It also would let the feds name “navigators” to help consumers access the market; he noted that in other states, those federally contracted navigators have included Planned Parenthood.

Cameron said, “I want to ask them: Can they find a single state that doesn’t have an exchange? And the truth is every state has an exchange. It’s either a federal exchange or a state-based exchange.”

He added, “I know the whole thing has been surrounded in controversy, certainly the federal exchange is in disarray, and we’ve had certainly some issues at the state level. But the truth is we’re paying a lower fee because we have a state-based exchange. The truth is we have board members we can reach out and touch, we can call and talk to, that you can call and complain. We have no one really to call and complain to that’s running the federal exchange.”

Cameron said, “In my opinion it certainly is an attempt to affect elections and be involved.”

Asked Wills, “Why else would you put it out there, if you’re not trying to influence the voters?”

He, like Cameron and Wood, said none of his constituents have expressed concerns to him since the billboards went up. “I think for the most part, people are aware of why our vote went that way,” Wills said.

Said Cameron, “I think by and large people still believe that we really are and were acting in the best interest of the state and in the best interest to protect Idahoans. That’s what the governor proposed, and that’s what we went along with.”

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter proposed this year’s state exchange legislation; Hoffman was the leading opponent, but it passed both houses and was signed into law.

Hoffman, who penned a guest editorial that appeared in several Idaho newspapers this week calling Idaho’s state insurance exchange “a festering sore,” said he’s spent $2,000 to $3,000 on the billboards so far, and had no estimate of how much he’ll spend overall. He said, “It’s an effective vehicle for getting a message out.”