There comes a point, usually around the end of March or early April, when random people (legislators, lobbyists and reporters) will stop me in the hallway of the Statehouse and proclaim, “This is one really weird legislative session!”
Weirdness is defined by the attribute that most defines the session: Length of time legislators are in town; the complexity of the subject matter under consideration; the volume of bills. Yes, this legislative session is weird. But that’s not so weird. They all are.
This legislative session is weird for the way it has strained the usual political paradigms.
This session, you’ll find the names of conservative Republicans on bills to expand government, and liberal Democrats on bills to curtail it.
Republican Rep. John Vander Woude, Nampa, not known to be a flaming liberal, successfully championed and got the governor to sign legislation to restrict parental rights—legislation that had been previously sponsored unsuccessfully by minority Democrats.
One of the most liberal members of the Legislature, Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Lewiston, proposed a bill to eliminate a dysfunctional occupational licensure board. The bill passed the Legislature with my blessing, but with opposition from several of my conservative friends.
Several lawmakers who generally support free enterprise joined with liberals to support a bill that would eliminate historical horse racing, even though that action would mean the end of an entire industry and the waste of millions of dollars in capital investment after just a year in business.
This year, I supported a bill to eliminate the sales tax on groceries and dramatically lower income taxes. The bill, as a political concession, included a 7-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax. It’s the only time in my life I have ever supported legislation that included a tax increase, but the bill, on the whole, provided ongoing net tax relief and significant tax reform. Yet some of my conservative friends didn’t hesitate to snipe me on social media. And liberal Senate Democrats, once the bill was dispatched, announced that they had valiantly and successfully “opposed a tax hike” on “hardworking Idahoans and their families.”
Meanwhile, some of my legislative allies are peddling a bill that includes $20 million in transportation fee increases. That bill cleared a Senate panel on Thursday with the support of Republicans and Democrats, but is on its way for amendment where it is likely to be stuffed with even higher fees with even more money coming out of the pockets of Idahoans.
Republicans have started cheering tax and fee increases as “conservative” because, they say, it means less deferred highway maintenance and eventually much higher highway and bridge construction costs. Their view might be somewhat believable if you ignore the fact that the Legislature has built a budget blueprint that contemplates $135 million in new spending as well as an additional $98 million available but unused.
I used to say that each legislative session is unique like a snowflake. But at least when you have enough snowflakes, you can make a pretty awesome snowman. I’m not sure what you can build with a pile of legislative sessions. But I will say this: Just as snowmen shouldn’t be around in April, the same is true for legislators.