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North Idaho strong in Legislature

Area’s politicians impacted state policy in 2013 session

BOISE – There was the freshman representative from Coeur d’Alene who led an insurrection among House GOP freshmen that changed the outcome of the session’s biggest issue: Gov. Butch Otter’s push to create a state-based health insurance exchange.

There was the doctor and second-term senator from Moscow whose quiet work across party lines softened the yearslong strife over Idaho’s health and human services funding, resulting in budgets with bipartisan support.

There was the longtime senator from Sandpoint whose steadfast advocacy against a statewide heavy-truck bill that North Idaho local officials staunchly opposed got the effects of the bill mitigated, even though it still passed.

North Idaho lawmakers were in the thick of the debates that shaped this year’s Idaho legislative session. Their levels of success varied, as did their levels of engagement, but the region’s delegation made its presence felt.

“I’m just totally pleased with the quality of the new legislators,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, the House Business Committee chairman who at 90 is Idaho’s oldest lawmaker. “They’re very high-quality people. They brought legitimate business experience and a high level of integrity and understanding that impressed me. … I didn’t have to babysit anybody.”

That included freshman Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, one of the youngest lawmakers at 31, and the architect of the House GOP freshman coalition that helped pass the governor’s health exchange bill, after demanding changes. The new lawmakers wanted more legislative oversight; now, the exchange board includes three lawmakers as voting members. If the bill hadn’t passed, Idaho would have let the federal government operate its state insurance exchange.

“I definitely thought that was the correct move for state sovereignty,” Malek said. “It took courage on the part of every individual involved.”

Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, the doctor who worked across party lines in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said, “There were some personal accomplishments – I wanted to have a better sense of where the money goes, and I got that. In JFAC you learn pretty fast.” He added, “We could work together. … Truthfully, it was fascinating how often we have shared goals.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the JFAC vice chairwoman who’s in her ninth term, said, “I think my work ended up being focused on balancing the budget and playing defense on a couple of issues.”

Among them: the statewide heavy-trucks bill. Keough worked hard against the bill, but it still passed. However, a follow-up bill guarantees local highway districts and cities control over their local roads, and Gov. Butch Otter wrote lawmakers a letter saying he won’t let the Idaho Transportation Department authorize new routes for extra-heavy trucks without holding public hearings and taking other steps. “The governor’s working behind the scenes to mitigate the passage of that bill,” Keough said. “I’m appreciative.”

Here’s what some other North Idaho lawmakers had to say when asked what they felt they had accomplished in Boise this year:

Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “Not a lot – we didn’t make government smaller, I can tell you that. Somehow it still keeps growing. I’m learning how the process works – hopefully, I’ll be a lot more effective next session.”

Henderson sponsored HB 100, the governor’s bill to set up a $3 million Idaho Opportunity Fund in the state Department of Commerce to make local infrastructure improvements to directly bring in new jobs. “I was pleased to be a sponsor of that bill in the House,” Henderson said. He predicts it will help Idaho’s economy grow.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, got the leadership panel’s meetings moved to a more accessible room where the meetings could be audio-streamed live on the Internet, and made sure agendas for the often hastily called meetings always were posted in advance. “It’s not tucked away in some caucus room where people have to find it,” he said.

Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, said, “I just go and do my work. I don’t know what I accomplished.”

Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, proposed several bills regarding eminent domain and planning and zoning issues that didn’t go far. “I soon realized the power of vested political interests, because some of the legislation that I brought forward was opposed by cities, major private organizations and entities like the highway districts,” he said. “Some of that legislation will be back next year; I think the need still exists.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, also saw much of the legislation he proposed rejected. “I had so many defeats,” he mused. “I think the most important thing, given the dynamics of this session, was that I was at least able to articulate the principles that my constituents sent me down here to address … holding back the socialist agenda and trying to represent the true local control and small government that is part and parcel to the Republican platform.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said her constituents were worried that Idaho would repeal the business personal property tax entirely and cause big funding problems for local governments and schools. “That was one thing coming down here that I really wanted to be able to influence in some respect,” she said. “And as it turns out, the partial repeal, with at least for now replacing the revenue, I think really was important to those folks.”

Ringo also noted items she supported including in-agency budget bills, including additional medical school seats and medical residency program slots; replacing failed equipment at Idaho Public Television that had cut off service to several small Idaho communities; and restoring two frozen steps in the state’s teacher salary schedule. However, she noted that a 2009 decision to cut teacher base pay by 8.35 percent still hasn’t been reversed.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “The (personal) property tax relief was a major accomplishment. I think it satisfies the major need; hopefully we can let that rest for a long time.” Eskridge also worked on legislation to set up a new Veterans Recognition Fund to take excess payments that were building up at the state Veterans Division, where others were eyeing the funds. “We got it preserved and set aside, and it’ll be used specifically for veterans,” he said. In four to five years, he said, that fund may help establish “a new veterans home – possibly in the Post Falls area. … I think we’ve got the demand. I had a good friend try to get into the Lewiston home, and he was on a waiting list.” Idaho’s only other veterans home is in Boise.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, declined to comment. His bill to grant $10 million a year in tax credits for scholarships for Idaho students to attend private schools narrowly passed the House but died in a Senate committee. Nonini argued it would save the state money by allowing thousands of Idaho kids to switch from public to private schools.

Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, a freshman, fought hard against the statewide heavy-trucks bill, debating passionately against it in the House. “My main concern was about safety, and I think there’s a huge misunderstanding and a big disconnect between the south and the north,” she said. “It can be pretty scary up there. … We would’ve served the state better by having a pilot project in the north. I’m disappointed.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, had perhaps the biggest impact on the session of any lawmaker: He led a mutiny in the Senate against the public schools budget that defeated it by one vote, extending the session for an extra week and forcing a new budget to be written.

“It wasn’t about the numbers; it was about process,” he said. “This isn’t the first time that the joint committee has overstepped its bounds. … There’s a reason for the process that we’ve got.”

Goedde also joined House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, in backing the revival of several pieces of voter-rejected Proposition 1, which was aimed at rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Still, Goedde said, it was a more amiable and collaborative process this time. “Even in the bills that the union opposed, they offered suggestions to make that final product better than where it started, and I really appreciate that,” he said. “All sides made concessions to make what moved forward more palatable.”

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