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Eye On Boise

Record suggests Risch could surprise; my full Sunday column

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch (Betsy Z. Russell)
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch (Betsy Z. Russell)

Here's my full column from Sunday's Spokesman-Review:

By Betsy Z. Russell

What might Idaho Sen. Jim Risch be like as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the most powerful committees in Congress? Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and longtime observer of Idaho politics, says the result might not be what most would assume.

“If Jim Risch has the opportunity to chair one of the most powerful committees in Congress, will he serve like the partisan right-wing ideologue that he is being portrayed as today in Washington, D.C.?” Weatherby asked. “Or will he be like the can-do activist governor who served for seven months in Idaho in one of the most memorable stints in Idaho gubernatorial history? My message to D.C. politicians is: Jim Risch can be more complicated than you think.”

Risch has proudly hailed his repeated ranking by the National Journal as the most conservative member of the Senate, and Democrats have expressed concern that if he took over the foreign relations panel, he’d merely be an apologist for the Trump administration. “Risch is viewed right now as very close to Trump and quite a Trump defender,” Weatherby said.

But he noted that Risch surprised many during his seven months as Idaho’s governor, when he reached across the aisle to establish a state roadless plan that won accolades from all sides. He also shook up state departments and called a special session of the Legislature to enact a tax shift that remains controversial today, cutting property taxes, which long had been a stable funding source for Idaho’s public schools, and raising the state sales tax.

Risch has had ups and downs throughout his long political career, Weatherby noted. He was the top GOP leader in the Idaho Senate when he was defeated by a Democrat in 1988; his first comeback attempts failed, but then he was appointed to his old seat and began to climb back up through the Idaho Senate leadership.

After being elected lieutenant governor in 2002, spending $350,000 of his own wealth on the campaign to win the part-time post, Risch was “in a position, people thought, to run for governor, and then he was out-maneuvered by Butch Otter,” Weatherby said.

Otter announced his candidacy for governor before he even started his final two-year term in Congress, and locked up endorsements and cash long before Risch succeeded then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in office in 2006, giving him a potential incumbent’s advantage. Risch ended up returning to the lieutenant governor’s post as Otter was elected governor.

Said Weatherby, “This is yet another chapter.”

Risch is the No. 2 Republican by seniority on Foreign Relations now, and Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee announced last week that he won’t seek re-election. The other potential heir to the chairmanship, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said last week that he doesn’t want it and would defer to Risch. Rubio and Risch are seatmates in the Senate, and Risch both endorsed and campaigned for Rubio for president last year.

AdWatch: Latest from Ahlquist

Idaho GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tommy Ahlquist has unveiled a new TV ad touting his support for term limits. Here’s what it says:

“I’m Dr. Tommy Ahlquist. Idahoans tell me they’re fed up with career politicians wasting their money. I agree. That’s why I support term limits. It took Washington politicians just nine years to double the national debt. Here in Idaho, career politicians have allowed state spending to outgrow our paychecks. Join me and limit statewide politicians in Boise to no more than eight years in office. Dr. Tommy Ahlquist, new ideas, fresh approach.”

The claims: Ahlquist is correct that the national debt has doubled in the past nine years. According to the U.S. Treasury, it rose from $9 trillion in 2007 to $18.2 trillion in 2015.

The ad appears to suggest that Idaho is spending more than it earns; however, the state is required by the Idaho Constitution to have a balanced budget each year. Ahlquist’s campaign said that claim relies on a comparison of the percentage growth in the state budget from 2012 to 2015 and the percentage growth in Idaho median household income from during those years.

While it’s true that the budget grew much faster than Idaho household income did in those years, Idaho’s state budget also fell during the recession, dropping from $2.959 billion in fiscal year 2009 to $2.384 billion in fiscal year 2011. This year’s budget is $3.451 billion.

Idaho’s current budget is about 16.6 percent higher than its 2009 figure; but inflation from 2009 to 2017 was roughly 16.3 percent, putting the state budget up by just a fraction of a percentage point from the 2009 level in inflation-adjusted dollars.

“These are the types of claims we often see in campaign ads,” said Jaclyn Kettler, Boise State University political scientist. “They’re technically accurate, but they are sometimes missing some important context.”

On term limits, Ahlquist favors an eight-year limit for statewide elected officials, which Kettler said is a popular concept on its face. The recent death of former Gov. Cecil Andrus focused attention on his record, which included being elected governor four times; asked if Ahlquist believes that shouldn’t have been allowed, his campaign manager David Johnston said Ahlquist “has a deep appreciation for those who have served in the past but Tommy is focused on the future.”

Labrador lauds limit on refugees

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador is praising the announcement from the Trump administration that it will drop the cap on refugees admitted to the United States next year to 45,000, even lower than the 50,000 that Labrador and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte proposed in legislation that cleared the Judiciary Committee in June on a party-line vote. Before Trump took office, the cap was set at 110,000.

Labrador said in a statement, “President Trump is exercising smart leadership by putting the safety of the American people first.”

The proposed new cap is the lowest since the modern U.S. refugee system was established in 1980.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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