An IdahoReporter.com analysis found, during the 2016 legislative session a good share of Idaho lawmakers voted to approve massive budget increases without individually casting a single dissenting tally.
Last session -- excluding missed votes, 23 state lawmakers voted 100 percent of the time to approve fiscal year 2016 supplemental appropriations as well as fiscal year 2017 agency budgets.
Another 58 lawmakers voted to approve 2017 budget bills and 2016 supplemental appropriations 90 percent of the time or more.
Of those 58, a handful, including GOP Reps. Luke Malek, Coeur d’Alene, Paul Romrell, St. Anthony, Merrill Beyeler, Leadore, and Republican Sen. Steve Bair, Blackfoot, missed the 100 percent mark by each voting against one appropriation.
Fiscal year 2017 budget bills added more than 8 percent to the state budget. In absolute terms that is more than $240 million. Lawmakers increased public school spending by more than $100 million through seven separate appropriations bills.
Of the 23 legislators who voted 100 percent of the time on the floor to approve increased budgets, 10 hold seats on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, or JFAC, which sets spending plans each year.
The four committee leaders, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, and Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, were in the 100 percent club, that is: they voted to approve each 2017 agency budget and all fiscal year 2016 supplemental appropriations.
A stark difference in voting patterns exists between the Idaho Senate and House leadership teams.
Nearly all Senate leadership team members voted themselves into the rubber-stamp club. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and and Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, approved higher spending bills 100 percent of the time.
Senate Majority Caucus Chair Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, barely resides outside that group. During the last session, Lake voted to approve agency budgets 99 percent of the time; he cast a single dissenting vote on a 2016 appropriation.
On the flip side of the Capitol rotunda, no members of House leadership qualified for the rubber-stamp club. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, came close, but he voted against appropriations bills twice in 2016. Otherwise, he supported spending bills on 98 percent of the votes.
The rest of Bedke’s leadership team voted less in lockstep with the body leader. Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, supported budgets on 74 percent of votes, while Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, voted yes on 69 percent of spending plans.
Finally, Majority Caucus Chair John Vande Woude, R-Nampa, supported budgets on 78 percent of votes.
From a partisan perspective, 22 of the 23 members who rubber-stamped budget increases were Republicans. Sen. Roy Lacey of Pocatello was the only Democrat to greenlight 100 percent of the budget bills placed before him.
Only one appropriation bill failed on either chamber floor during the 2016 session. On March 10, conservative and liberal lawmakers joined forces to kill a budget for the Idaho Arts Commission, a move widely seen as a protest against House leaders, who were using their power to block some bills from receiving hearings in committees.
After the arts bill died, JFAC reworked it, added $200 to the spending plan, and sent it back to the chamber floors. Eventually, the measure passed and found its way into law.
Earlier this year, the Idaho Statesman highlighted a core group of conservative who consistently vote no on budgets. Among them was Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.
Barbieri said he’s unwilling to bend to bigger government when his constituents have elected him to restrain state spending and growth.
“My constituents sent me to represent them with the understanding that government cannot continue to grow,” Barbieri said Tuesday.
Barbieri, who supported budgets 53 percent of the time on floor votes, said his “no” votes are a suggestion that budget-writers try spending less money.
“To vote ‘no’ does not mean there should be no budget,” Barbieri said. “It means take it back and rework it and come back with a reasonable amount of money.”
Dr. Sam Abrams, professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, said legislators who stick to the lower-spending beliefs face a tougher road than lawmakers who rubber-stamp appropriations bills.
“This is a horrible position to be in for lawmakers who are principled,” he told IdahoReporter.com.
If legislators like Barbieri cut government, affected interests can drum up major opposition that is perceived to be bigger than it is in reality.
“The aggrieved make a lot of noise,” Abrams explained. “That noise is amplified because of social media.”
When lawmakers face a choice of cutting spending or increasing budgets, Abrams said saying “yes” is likely always the simpler path.
“It’s the lesser of two evils,” he said. “It’s almost easier to fall on your sword this way and take heat for the ballooning costs.”
Otherwise, the professor added, the principled lawmakers could face massive amounts of criticism.
“If you cut something, you might as well put a target on your back and say ‘shoot me’,’’ Abrams warned. “Cutting government is very hard.”
Indeed, the voting records issue found its way into one high-profile primary election race last month. Establishment-backed Republican challenger Doug Ricks knocked District 34 incumbent Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, for opposing numerous spending bills during the 2016 session.
Ricks, who failed in his bid to unseat the incumbent, cast Nate as extreme and out-of-step for opposing the spending plans.
On the opposite side of the state, though, one challenger criticized an incumbent for voting “yes” too many times. Small businessman Zach Brooks of Caldwell knocked longtime Senate veteran Patti Anne Lodge for only voting against one appropriation bill in the past three years.
Brooks, who fell just a few hundred votes short of toppling Lodge, said her voting record shows an uncomfortable truth for District 11 residents.
“It shows a lack of critical thinking,” Brooks said. “There has to be something you could vote against.”
He said lawmakers have a duty to examine each spending bill in depth and restrain government’s growth.
“It just tells me you’re abdicating your responsibility to be a conservative caretaker of the taxpayer money,” Brooks said of legislators who consistently rubber-stamp budgets.