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Hoffman: Legislators rely on unelected subs too much

Hoffman: Legislators rely on unelected subs too much

Wayne Hoffman
May 24, 2009
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May 24, 2009

In the late spring of 2003, as lawmakers considered a bill to raise taxes, Moscow Republican Rep. Gary Young rose to his feet on the floor of the House of Representatives and announced, "My constituents tell me they don't want a tax increase."

The problem is that Young's constituents also told him that they didn't want him, either. They ousted Young. Democrat Shirley Ringo beat Young in the 2002 general election by 736 votes. So how did Young end up in the same office from which voters dismissed him?

State law allows legislators to appoint temporary replacements, but the law has virtually no sideboards to prevent abuse - to keep defeated lawmakers from serving or elected legislators from permanently sending their temporary proxies to vote. Even lobbyists get to cast votes in the Idaho Legislature - and they have.

By the end of the 2009 legislative session, seven members - 20 percent of the Senate's membership - were temporary replacements who never stood for an election. That might be convenient for elected legislators, but it's not so good for the folks who take the time to go to the polls, elect their representatives and have un-Pollyanna-ish trust that those representatives will be the ones who show up and cast votes.

The idea behind the law's application is to allow their constituents to continue to have three votes (two in the House, one in the Senate) during the relatively brief time that the Legislature is in business. In most circumstances, the law had been applied in the event of illness or an emergency that necessitated the legislator's temporary absence.

(State law also has a mechanism, born out of 1950s Cold War fears, that requires legislators to name up to seven people who could be appointed to take their place in the event of a devastating attack upon the United States.)

Republican Rep. Tom Trail appointed Young to take his place temporarily as the 2003 legislative session meandered through April, interrupting Trail's long-established spring vacation plans. So, although voters had decided to turn Young out, Trail decided to throw the defeated legislator back in. Other notable appointments include Anne Pasley-Stuart, who was a registered lobbyist at the time of her provisional appointment to the Senate in the early 2000s, and lawyer Mark EchoHawk, who during his stint as fill-in state representative got to debate and vote on legislation affecting one of his tribal clients.

This year, two temporary replacements were in place the entire session. Democrat Sens. Clint Stennett of Ketchum and Edgar Malepeai of Pocatello have been dealing with difficult health issues that necessitated their absence from the Legislature. Stennett took leave from this year's legislative session to undergo brain cancer treatment. Malepeai stayed away from the 2008 and 2009 legislative sessions in order to care for his wife, who died earlier this year.

By law, Stennett and Malepeai's hand-picked replacements, Jon Thorson of Sun Valley and Dick Sagness of Pocatello, were given all the rights and privileges of the Senate as if they had stood for election. But at some point, someone has to ask how long a temporary appointment to the Legislature - or any other elected office - should continue. Though the circumstances are tragic, can a legislator reasonably be expected to be elected and never vote? In 2002, GOP Sen. Ric Branch resigned the Legislature after complaints that his prolonged absence to tend to his ranch was interfering with his duties, including those as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

The state's constitution gives people the absolute right to consult with and instruct their legislators on how to vote. It's tough to do that when your representatives change from week to week, when the legislator you voted for never shows up, or when the person you voted out of office is brought back in.

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