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Is fiscal conservatism dead in the Idaho GOP?

Is fiscal conservatism dead in the Idaho GOP?

Niklas Kleinworth
May 11, 2023

Three in five Republican lawmakers in the Idaho Legislature voted in favor of growing bureaucracies, increasing federal control, and expanding wasteful programs more than half of the time, according to the Idaho Spending Index.

With more than half of Republicans boasting voting records that are indistinguishable from those of Democrats, it seems that fiscal conservatism is all but dead in the Gem State. New blood in the Legislature, however, appears to be rekindling this dormant philosophy of government.

Fiscal conservatism used to be a key component of the Republican party platform. Most conservatives would still say they believe in promoting low taxes, smaller government, personal agency and less spending. They would add that the free market is the only true path to American prosperity. Social conservatism depends on these principles, as you cannot promote individualism while also funding expanding government intervention. You cannot keep taxes low when agencies continue to grow their budgets. Fiscal and social conservatism go hand in hand. Once cannot exist without the other.

As a companion to the Freedom Index, the Spending Index takes a dollars-and-cents approach to measuring the size and influence of government. It is the first and only measure of fiscal conservatism in the nation. The Spending Index returns to the foundational principles of conservatism so that citizens may understand which lawmakers embody these principles in their voting records.

A comparison of the Freedom Index to the Spending Index shows that Republicans generally score better than Democrats on social issues but are far less principled on fiscal issues. On the Freedom Index, none of the Republicans received a score worse than the top-ranking Democrat. By contrast, 43 of 87 Republicans — that is 49% of them — scored worse than the top-ranking Democrat, Rep. Colin Nash of Boise. More disturbing, 24 members of the GOP received worse Spending Index scores than the lowest-ranking Democrat, Sen. Julie Ward-Engleking of Boise — who earned a score of 16.2%.

Some would argue that Democrats received higher scores because they voted against negatively rated bills in the interest of spending more when the legislation is revised in committee. But this is not the whole story. Only seven spending bills received any “nay” votes from the Democrats in the 2023 legislative session. The dissent on three of these bills — Legislative Services (H301), Medicaid (H369) and the Liquor Division (S1149) — was strictly over the amount appropriated to these agencies. Dissent on the other bills, by contrast, focused on policy differences, not objections to the amount spent. These bills provided funding for a conservative attorney general, continued the Empowering Parents Grant program, and redirected funds from needle exchanges to first responders.

Some of these pieces of legislation were genuinely bad bills. The final Medicaid budget, for example, cut from the rolls 13,000 people who were deemed ineligible to receive government medical welfare, but legislators should have taken more aggressive action. As of this writing, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare removed an additional 16,025 ineligible beneficiaries from the rolls, meaning lawmakers could have spared taxpayers the burden of an additional $177 million and counting. Democrats opposed removing the 13,000 ineligibles, but Republicans should have demanded that more be removed, instead of supporting the half-measure bill.

It is worth noting that nine Republicans never saw a budget they didn’t like, voting in favor of every budget bill of consequence. Three of these members are in leadership: Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder, Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Abby Lee and Majority Caucus Chair Rep. Dustin Manwaring.

There is also a considerable amount of polarization in the voting behavior of lawmakers on spending issues. About 85% of lawmakers fall into either the top or bottom quartile on the Spending Index, leaving a mere 16 legislators in the middle.

The Idaho Senate is the more polarized of the two bodies with all but one Senator falling in either the top or bottom quartiles. The 11 senators ranking among the top performers are all newly elected members. Their number is a dramatic improvement from the 2022 legislative session, where Sen. Christy Zito (R – Hammett) stood as the lone fiscally conservative senator.

Legislators who wish to establish their credentials as conservatives must do more in fiscal policy. Eliminating ineligibles from government programs, no longer subsidizing abortion, and cutting federal strings are pivotal for advancing conservative policymaking. Continuing to fund these bad policies subverts conservative principles and thwarts the success of working Americans.

Constituents realize this. The dramatic shift in the fiscal philosophy of the Idaho Senate is a key indicator that Idahoans are finished with the Washington, D.C.-style rampant spending and the social implications that come with it.

The Idaho Spending Index reveals that fiscal conservatism is not dead, only dormant. The people most affected by bad spending habits 一 constituents 一 are keenly aware of how important it is to maintain conservative principles in the Idaho Legislature. Lawmakers should take note.

Idaho Freedom Foundation
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