BOISE – Every year a bloc of lawmakers in the Idaho Legislature votes against billions of dollars in spending for routine functions of state government, and this year was no exception.
When the 2016 session ended March 25, one lawmaker had voted against nearly 60 percent of spending bills, while another opposed 85 percent of all spending for the fiscal year that starts in July.
Four of the top five naysayers, and half of the top 10, hail from North Idaho. All are Republicans serving in the House. Sitting just outside the top 10 are the second- and third-ranked members of the House Republican leadership. The top no-voting senator also is a Republican from North Idaho.
The naysayers almost never get their way, but their opposition occasionally imperils budgets for seemingly noncontroversial programs or measures. Especially within the House, where lawmakers vote no most often, their reflexive opposition splinters coalitions, gives rise to friction and breeds resentment among colleagues who support appropriations in the interest of good government, even when they might take issue with the amounts or policies involved.
Increasingly, just voting no is a sign of the times in government, beginning with Congress. For voters considering candidates in an election year, a look at how lawmakers vote on basic appropriations bills can reveal a lot about their overall attitude and approach to governing.
The Statesman looked at the Legislature’s votes on 91 key appropriations bills to fund government operations for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The sum of those appropriations topped $7.6 billion, the money for which comes from federal and state sources.
All the budget bills passed, as they almost invariably do, typically by margins better than 2-1. And if they didn’t? The 2016 session provided some insight. One relatively small outlay was defeated this year when minority House Democrats, in a protest vote, voted no along with the conservative anti-spending Republicans.
The appropriation was later resubmitted and approved, but the Democrat protest showed what can happen when normally compliant lawmakers decide not to be taken for granted.
It also showed the divisions within the ruling Republican majority, which holds 4-1 advantages in both houses. The “loyal opposition” in most legislatures is the minority party. In Idaho, more often than not it resides within the most conservative Republican faction, even on routine budget bills.
“I think this is sort of what we’re seeing nationally as well, and it’s not uncommon in one-party states,” said Corey Cook, dean of Boise State University’s School of Public Service.
“It’s a really difficult leadership challenge. I think we certainly saw that with Speaker Boehner,” Cook said, referring to former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who finally stepped down after much opposition from within his own party. “These are fairly straightforward governing tasks. These are appropriations bills.”
The spending opponents, often with little or no comment, vote against spending for health and social welfare programs, for culture and recreation, even administrative budgets for agencies including the Labor Department, Tax Commission and Attorney General’s Office.
What do these voters want? Smaller budgets or smaller government, or both? Sometimes objections focus narrowly on a specific program or expense within a larger appropriation. More broadly, however, opposition from the bloc derives from a fundamental philosophy and desire to limit the size and role of government in Idaho, especially from the federal level.
“Especially with those of us representing the north, you have to start with the overall premise … to not just limit the growth of government but somehow begin to shrink the size,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, a third-term Republican from Dalton Gardens in Kootenai County. Of the 91 bills reviewed by the Statesman, Barbieri voted against 43 of them, totaling nearly $6.4 billion, or 84 percent of all spending. That topped all lawmakers.
“You don’t have to be against the principle or the program,” he said. “The program can be useful, but is it wasteful? Is it too expensive? Is there another way that government can address the issue without increasing the burden? And that’s what I’m looking at.”
Democrats hold a different view.
“Those are people who don’t like government anyway, and so of course they don’t want to pay for it. I always question why they’re in government then,” said John Rusche, the House Democratic minority leader from Lewiston.
For the North Idaho electorate, he asks: “What would happen if their legislators got their way? What would North Idaho be like?”
What sets North Idaho apart? Often cited is the separation bred by physical distance and a different time zone, with the area north of the Salmon River on Pacific time. Other factors are fairly intangible: North Idaho looks different from the rest of the state, and attracts a more conservative resident relocating from out of state.
Barbieri describes a “disconnect from much of the ideology of the country” and intensified attitudes relative to other parts of the state.
“These things that all of Idaho believes in somehow have been concentrated up here in a way that says government is intruding and we’ve got to stop that intrusion,” Barbieri said. “Somehow it’s manifest itself in the north a little bit more strongly.”
Typically, party legislative leaders vote together, and usually in support of the party line, but not in the Idaho House. Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star voted no on about one-quarter of appropriations bills totaling more than $3.6 billion. Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane of Nampa voted no a third of the time, rejecting $3.7 billion in outlays.
“I voted against more budgets the last two years than I have probably in the rest of my career combined, because I’m very concerned about the growth of government,” said Crane. Among his no votes, he opposed the department budget submitted by his father, Idaho Treasurer Ron Crane, because it was “too high.”
On budget votes, “I think that you’re seeing that the party’s large enough to embrace both sides,” Crane said. “We do have a large enough tent, and we tell people, vote your conscience, vote your constituency.”
A total of 24 lawmakers – 13 in the Senate and 11 in the House – did not oppose any spending bills. Exactly half of those 24 serve on the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, the House-Senate body that initially reviews the governor’s proposed budget and writes the budget bills the Legislature votes on. Seven JFAC members voted no three or fewer times.
The one outlier among the compliant legislative budget writers was North Idaho Sen. Sherry Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, who voted no on more budget bills than any other senator, opposing $3.4 billion in spending.
After Nuxoll, the Senate’s most frequent no voters were Sens. Steve Vick of Dalton Gardens and Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene, both from North Idaho, followed by Sens. Jim Patrick of Twin Falls and Jim Rice of Caldwell.
The House Democratic protest vote in March came in response to Republican moves to bottle up the minority party’s bills. Democrats voted as a bloc against the $2 million budget for the state Arts Commission. With the customary opposition from conservative Republican lawmakers, that bill failed, although it was later resubmitted and approved.
In the overall state budget, $2 million is minuscule. But opposition bordering on brinkmanship nearly sank the massive $2.2 billion Medicaid appropriation in the Department of Health and Welfare budget, the single largest appropriation that lawmakers vote on. The bill passed the House narrowly when all but one Democrat voted no, to protest Republican foot-dragging on expanding Medicaid for poor Idahoans.
“Our bloc voted no because (Republicans) substantially underfunded and ignored 78,000 Idahoans,” said Boise Rep. Mat Erpelding, House assistant minority leader.
Idaho Medicaid spending is 63 percent federal money. Barbieri voted no, calling it “unsustainable.” Just because most of it is federal money is “not an adequate rationale,” he said. “I am just as concerned with federal taxpayers as I am Idaho taxpayers.”
Opposition can be measured either by the number of No votes or the dollar amount of spending those votes represent. Rep. Ron Nate, a first-term Republican from Rexburg, voted no most often, opposing 52 of 91 spending bills, or 57 percent. The next four were all north Idaho Republicans: Shannon McMillan of Silverton, Kathleen Sims of Coeur D’Alene, Heather Scott of Blanchard, and Barbieri.
In terms of dollars, North Idaho Republicans again took for of the top five spots, led by Barbieri. McMillan voted against 77 percent of spending, opposing $5.9 billion, followed by Sims at $5.7 billion. The southwest Idaho outlier, Rep. Gayle Batt of Wilder, voted against $5.5 billion, followed by Scott, who opposed $4.8 billion.
Rounding out the Top 10 were Republicans Pete Nielsen of Mountain Home; Stephen Harris of Meridian; Sage Dixon of Ponderay; Scott’s seatmate in the 1st District; Nate, and Crane. Moyle was 11th.
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