Here's my full column from Sunday's Spokesman-Review:
By Betsy Z. Russell
When Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, took the lead on crafting the state’s complex Health and Welfare budgets four years ago, there was a “very steep learning curve,” the longtime physician said.
“It was like medical school,” he recalled. “But it was short – it was only a month and a half of learning. And then I started proposing budgets. I relied on a lot of help. The staff is incredibly helpful.”
Schmidt won respect from lawmakers from both parties, reaching out to work with some of the most conservative Republicans, including Sens. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, and Steven Thayn, R-Emmett. But last week, he narrowly lost his bid for a fourth Senate term to GOP challenger Dan Foreman.
“I think he was very conservative in his work on those budgets,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the Senate co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “He was able to find ways to make our dollars go farther.”
Schmidt’s work saved the state millions of dollars as growth in Health and Welfare budgets ratcheted downward after years of big increases. In the past four years, state general fund spending on health and human services has risen an average of 3.5 percent a year; in the year before Schmidt joined JFAC, it went up 7.4 percent.
“So many issues that we deal with in Health and Welfare are completely nonpartisan,” said Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who partnered with Schmidt on the budgets the last two years as a new JFAC member. “It’s making sure that the best policy and accountability of tax dollars is in place, and Sen. Schmidt and I worked very well. He was a watchdog over Health and Welfare dollars.”
Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House co-chair of JFAC, said, “In his work with me and Luke, as far as I could see, there were no D’s and R’s involved at all. It was just simply budget.” She added, “I was so sure when the end product came out that we could stand up and support it, and tell people it was the very best we could do, both for those that needed the help and those that were paying for it.”
Keough called Schmidt a “workhorse” on the committee and “a very valuable member.” She said, “He relished it. He dove into the details, the finer points. He knew the issues very well because of his medical background. … He was always a level head, and he rarely played partisan politics on the budget committee.”
Asked if he has any regrets as he leaves the Idaho Senate, Schmidt said, “Losing.”
“Oh, yeah, there was a lot more I wanted to do,” he said. “I enjoyed my time in the Legislature, and I thought I did a good job. So it was quite a disappointment to not keep doing it.”
But he compared the situation to another transition in his life, when he left his job at a local medical clinic after 17 years, the last 15 as the county coroner, and faced a two-year noncompete agreement that required him to practice out of town. He worked in emergency rooms in Grangeville, Orofino and Cottonwood; worked at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene; served as a prison doctor in Boise; and worked on an Indian reservation in Arizona for two months. And at the end of the two years, rather than open a local practice, he decided to run for the state Senate.
“This election has created what I would call an opportunity window for me,” Schmidt said. “There are lots of things that interest me and give me pleasure and joy. So that’s probably what I’ll be working on.”
Asked his advice to the lawmakers who succeed him, Schmidt said, “Work hard.” Constituents may never know, he said, but that’s what it takes to do the job.
Rusche: ‘It just wasn’t to be’
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who lost his District 6 seat in last week’s election after 12 years in office, said, “Obviously the district wanted a different kind of representation. I mean, 3,000 votes is not an error of campaigning or anything else like that. It’s just part of the wave, I think. And I’m real proud of the campaign that I ran. I worked harder than I had in any other campaign, but it just wasn’t to be.”
Rusche lost to GOP challenger Mike Kingsley, 41.8 percent to 58.2 percent. Two years ago, Kingsley lost to Rusche by just 48 votes.
Ybarra with Trump ‘from Day 1’
Idaho state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, proudly wearing a blue Trump-Pence sticker on election night, said she’s been a Trump supporter “since Day 1.”
“I’m so excited, I’m very optimistic,” Ybarra said. “He is much like myself – he’s kind of stepping out, he’s doing his thing, he’s not really owned by anybody and he looks completely different. I’m very optimistic for the future that he’s not going to be status quo.”
Lawmakers on tour
The newly elected 2017 Idaho Legislature will embark on its biennial North Idaho Tour this week, starting with breakfast at North Idaho College this morning and closed party caucuses tonight in Moscow. A majority of the 105 lawmakers generally attend the three-day tour, which offers a chance for campaigning in leadership races along with Chamber of Commerce-sponsored tours of various North Idaho locations. This year’s tour will include Lewis-Clark State College, the Nez Perce Reservation, the University of Idaho, Gritman Medical Center, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and more.
Chamber officials, business executives, higher education officials and lobbyists also participate in the tour, which this year is sponsored by the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce; they pay a $500-per-person fee. Sponsors ranging from Avista Corp., Clearwater Paper and Hecla Mining to the cities of Lewiston and Moscow help underwrite the costs.