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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Democrats make statement by rejecting art budget

As the Idaho Legislature lurches into what are supposed to be the final two weeks of this year’s session, an unexpected bump came late last week.

That’s when the House killed the budget for the state Commission on the Arts, and then refused to reconsider its narrow vote.

Eight House Democrats joined 29 Republicans to kill the appropriation bill Thursday, a few of them switching their votes to “no” at the last minute, enabling them to call for reconsideration, which requires having voted on the prevailing side.

In the reconsideration vote, all 14 House Democrats voted yes, as did 17 Republicans. But 36 Republicans voted no.

So what does this mean for the budget for the state Commission on the Arts? The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which had finished three weeks of agency budget-setting votes that morning, will have to reconvene and pass a new budget bill. It could be almost identical to the defeated one – which earlier passed the Senate, 32-3. The new version would just have to have some small difference, even if it’s just $1.

The arts budget itself wasn’t controversial. It drew no debate and includes no new programs. It simply maintains the agency at its current level. House Democrats were sending a message: The overwhelming GOP majority needs their votes to pass even basic budget bills, because the GOP caucus is so split, but it won’t allow any of the minority’s proposals to get hearings.

“They keep refusing to listen to our bills, but expect us to go along and vote in favor when they need us,” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said Thursday. “Today was a statement.”

Numerous GOP lawmakers have been voting against most or all state budget bills, though the Legislature’s most basic job during its session each year is to pass a budget, as required by the Idaho Constitution.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who had voted against the arts budget bill, switched sides and supported reconsideration. “I don’t mind it being reconsidered – that was a political game,” she said. “They want their voices heard, their citizens’ voices heard, the same way I want my citizens’ voices heard. … It’s hard when people’s voices are suppressed.”

Noting that she votes against a lot of budget bills, Scott said she opposed the Commission on the Arts budget because “I don’t think it’s a priority right now,” saying she’d rather wait to consider such budgets after all higher-priority budgets like education and roads have won final approval.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he opposed both the budget bill and the reconsideration on principle, because he doesn’t believe funding the arts is government’s role.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he expects the issue to be resolved.

“I suspect that the budget for the Commission on the Arts is going to come through this unrelated altercation unscathed,” he said.

$5.5 million for public defense reform

Idaho lawmakers took a historic step last week when the joint budget committee voted unanimously in favor of spending $5.5 million next year to fund the Public Defense Commission and reform Idaho’s system of providing public defenders to defendants who can’t afford attorneys. It’s a system that a state-commissioned study several years ago found to be constitutionally deficient, and that’s already faced a class-action lawsuit, though the case was dismissed on procedural grounds.

Reform legislation already has passed the House on a 68-2 vote. The funding bill will follow that. It carries out the recommendations of a legislative interim committee that spent two years studying the issue, including setting new standards for public defense and providing grants and training to counties to help them meet the new standards.

Of the $5,482,800 appropriation of state general funds, just $13,400 is one-time; the rest is ongoing, meaning it’ll be an annual expenditure. The funding bill still needs full House and Senate passage and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by joint budget committee.

Taxes and cuts …

Long-sought legislation to ease the collection of sales taxes on Idahoans’ online purchases cleared a House committee for the first time Friday, after years of attempts. State law now requires the tax to be paid, but Idahoans are supposed to self-report and pay it on their annual income tax returns, since most out-of-state merchants aren’t required to collect it.

The bill’s fate is uncertain.

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted to send the bill to the full House for amendments, where any member can offer an amendment. Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he plans to add in his proposal to cut individual and corporate income taxes. That bill passed the House Feb. 3 but hasn’t gotten a Senate committee hearing.

Follow reporter Betsy Z. Russell on the Eye on Boise blog at www.spokesman. com/blogs/boise. She can be reached at betsyr @spokesman.com or (208) 336-2854.

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