Democratic legislators from both houses offered an unusually positive response today to GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State message to lawmakers yesterday. “Clearly we need a better way forward, and the governor and our GOP leaders are beginning to understand that,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “We are pleased that the governor outlined many priorities in his address that Idaho Democrats have championed for years. We thank him for beginning to understand that a strong investment in our education system will grow Idaho’s economy.”
The Democrats particularly applauded Otter’s attention to education funding in his address. “There was a lot to be found that we all can be in agreement on,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum. The Dems, who gathered for a joint news conference in the House Minority Caucus room, also pointed to Otter’s emphasis on workforce development and the value of community colleges, his comments on the need to invest in transportation infrastructure without robbing the general fund that pays for education and health and welfare, and his emphasis on job development programs aimed at bringing in higher-wage jobs.
Stennett said the tax reimbursement incentive program that helped bring a new Amy’s Kitchen plant to Idaho had its roots in a Democratic proposal several years back for an incentive for value-added agriculture businesses. “Idaho Democrats have been pushing for better education investment, job development, workforce training and help for Idahoans’ ‘household economy’ for years,” she said. “We have tried to be stewards of our great Idaho natural gifts. We have tried to help Idaho drive more often with headlights, and less using the rear-view mirror. We appreciate the governor beginning to see the wisdom in our approach.”
They did differ with Otter and majority Republicans on some issues, however, and said Idaho isn’t going fast enough to restore school funding cut during the economic downturn. They called for increasing Idaho’s minimum wage, and said if Legislature doesn’t act on that, it could well happen by citizen initiative.
The Democratic lawmakers called for amending the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, who is working on the bill, said, “We’re working diligently to make it come to fruition. … Definitely discussions are going on throughout the body. There are a number of folks that are working to develop legislation. … We’re at least having those discussions, which is really encouraging to me. And we’re hearing … that a hearing will be held this year. We’re hoping that will happen and that it will ultimately end up in passage of an amendment to the Human Rights Act.”
The Democrats also said they support three new ethics bills this year: Bringing Idaho its first personal financial disclosure requirements for elected officials; adding a “revolving door” law to require a wait before a former lawmaker can immediately return to the Statehouse as a lobbyist; and banning lobbying of the executive branch by prospective contractors during the time that requirements for big contracts are being developed. “That needs to be more carefully monitored and managed,” Rusche said.
He added, “I have discussed financial disclosure with Rep. (Tom) Loertscher and the speaker. He is working on financial disclosure legislation that we support. I believe it’s modeled after the state of Utah.” Loertscher chairs the House State Affairs Committee. The Senate passed a financial disclosure bill unanimously in 2009, but then-Speaker Lawerence Denney never assigned it to a committee in the House, so it died. Idaho is one of only three states without any personal financial disclosure requirements for elected or appointed officials.