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Idaho Legislature to re-examine ethics, campaign finance laws

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the president pro-tem of the Idaho Senate. Hill and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, are appointing a new legislative panel to re-examine the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)

BOISE – Idaho is one of just three states with no financial disclosure requirements for state legislators – or any elected or appointed state official. It also lacks “revolving-door” laws that in most states prevent elected or appointed officials from immediately moving into related roles in the private sector, cashing in on their government experience.

And an ethics and campaign finance reform voter initiative barely missed the threshold to make the Idaho ballot in 2016, proposing to restrict donations to candidates from those holding or seeking big state contracts, cut contribution limits, double penalties for violations and ban big gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, among other reforms.

Now, the Idaho Legislature’s top leaders are looking at these issues again, and proposing to put together a formal legislative working group to study them and make recommendations to next year’s Legislature.

“This is something the speaker and I have been talking about actually for a couple of years,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. He noted that in 2009, the Idaho Senate unanimously passed legislation to impose the state’s first financial disclosure requirements. The bill died without a hearing in the House, after then-House Speaker Lawerence Denney refused to assign it to a committee.

Denney’s now the Idaho Secretary of State, and even he has been talking for the past two years about the need to tighten up Idaho’s campaign finance laws, possibly along the lines of the proposed 2016 initiative.

“I think it brought up some issues that we both felt like we ought to address,” Hill said. Topics to be examined include penalties for campaign reporting violations; contribution limits; lobbyist financial disclosure; rules for special elections; reporting requirements for candidates and PACs; revolving-door policies and personal financial disclosure.

“We want them to look at issues,” Hill said. “We need to listen to those people who have expressed some interest in making those reforms.”

Hill and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, will announce the 10 lawmakers to be appointed to the working group when Idaho’s Legislative Council meets at the state Capitol on Friday. They’ll include four Republican senators and one Democrat, along with four GOP House members and, again, one Democrat. One senator and one House member will be designated to co-chair the panel.

Hill said legislative staffers will be tasked to look into “what other states are doing” and lessons Idaho can learn from them.

In 2015, Idaho earned a D-minus grade for its government ethics, transparency and accountability from the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, with the state’s low marks reflecting its lack of financial disclosure requirements, revolving door laws, and ethics enforcement, with no state ethics commission.

Idaho lawmakers have used interim working groups before to address major issues facing the state. Last year, working groups examined faith healing laws; the state’s health coverage gap; and invasive species issues. A year earlier, a 10-member working group studied the state’s tax system.

Hill said he and Bedke plan to issue a formal written charge for the new working group, to avoid confusion about the expectations for the panel. That was an issue with last year’s faith healing working group, he said, which held hearings but then had no deliberations and made no recommendations. “We didn’t have anything in writing, and some things fell apart there, as far as the interim working group was concerned,” Hill said.

Luna won’t run for Congress after all

Former Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who announced earlier that he was considering running for the Idaho 1st District congressional seat the current Rep. Raul Labrador will vacate as he runs instead for governor in 2018, now says he’s decided against running.

“Cindy and I appreciate the support and encouragement we have received over the last few weeks as I considered serving the citizens of Idaho’s 1st Congressional District,” Luna said in an emailed statement. “However, after considerable contemplation, prayer and discussion with family, we have decided that I will not be a candidate for Congress in 2018.”

“My reason for running for state superintendent of schools was because of my passion for improving our children’s educational opportunities. It started as a school board member in Nampa more than 20 years ago. Since leaving elected office, I have been blessed to work across the country helping millions of students gain access to a quality, rigorous, and relevant curriculum that empowers students and prepares them for the world where they will live and work. At this time, I want to continue to focus on my passion for education versus serving in Congress,” Luna said.

“Idaho and the 1st Congressional District must have a representative that will fight to reduce the burden of the federal government; our children and their futures depend on it. I look forward to supporting a conservative candidate that will take on this challenge.”

Luna was twice elected to the state schools post, but voters dramatically rejected his sweeping “Students Come First” school reform package in 2012, the first time Idaho voters have overturned major state legislation at the polls since the 1930s. Luna then opted not to seek re-election, and after he left office, went to work for Project Leads the Way, an Indiana-based education company; he’s still based in Idaho. He oversees the firm’s government relations team.

David Leroy, former Idaho lieutenant governor and attorney general, has announced he’s running for the 1st District congressional seat in 2018 as a Republican. Michael William Smith of Post Falls has filed to run for the seat as a Democrat, but hasn’t responded to inquiries about his candidacy from reporters.

Judge Nye vote pending in panel

Idaho Judge David Nye’s nomination to be the state’s next federal district judge is on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, and it appears a committee vote is likely. Nye already won unanimous approval from the committee after a hearing in June of 2016, but the nomination never came up for a vote in the full Senate. Last month, at the urging of Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, President Trump re-nominated Nye.

Idaho has been down to just one active federal district judge since longtime Judge Edward Lodge took senior status on July 3, 2015. The federal court system has declared a judicial emergency in Idaho due to the shortage of judges, and visiting judges have been brought in from other states to hear cases.

Lindsay Nothern, Crapo’s press secretary, said he expects a voice vote in the committee to approve Nye. “He’s been through the process before. We do expect his nomination to move forward,” Nothern said.

Crapo and Risch negotiated with the Obama Administration for a year and a half before settling on Nye as a nominee acceptable to both President Obama, a Democrat, and the two Idaho senators, both Republicans. The long process included considering and rejecting dozens of other possible nominees.

Nye, 58, has been an Idaho 6th District judge since 2007; prior to that, he practiced law in Pocatello for 20 years, specializing in medical malpractice and insurance law. He holds both bachelor’s and law degrees from Brigham Young University.