There is a first-day-of-school ambience to the Legislature’s organizational session, which began Thursday.
It’s a time for ceremonies and swearings in. Lawmakers spend their downtime reconnecting — or simply getting acquainted. Sharing in the celebration, lawmakers’ loved ones watch from the galleries and mill around the Statehouse.
But political bloodsport plays out beneath this festive surface, and that was especially the case when lawmakers hit town this week. Powerful leadership positions were on the line. A host of coveted committee assignments were up for grabs. And everything felt wide open; after a year of legislative retirements and election upsets, 45 of Idaho’s 105 newly elected legislators were not in office in 2022.
This organizational session represents a huge reallocation of power in the Statehouse. It also provides some possible hints about what to expect in 5 ½ weeks, when the 2023 legislative session convenes.
I’ve been covering or observing Idaho legislative sessions since 1986. I can safely say that I’ve never seen more curiosity — or abject apprehension — surrounding an upcoming session. I’ve more or less heard the same thing across the political spectrum. Everyone seems to be trying to size up the newcomers, process the turnover, and figure out what to make of the Senate, where hardline conservatives secured several seats, often at the expense of moderate incumbents.
As the saying goes, politics abhors a vacuum. Politics isn’t too wild about turmoil either.
Sorry to say, but we won’t really know what this session is going to look like until this session actually begins. Until lawmakers start bringing bills and casting votes, it’s something of a guessing game, an exercise in reading mixed signals:
- On the one hand, the Senate GOP caucus stuck with the status quo. Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder of Boise held off a challenge from Sen. Lori Den Hartog of Meridian, one of the Senate’s more conservative Republicans. Majority Leader Kelly Anthon and Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee defeated Sens. Dan Foreman and Ben Adams — two members of that new wave of freshly elected hardline conservatives.
- The Senate side of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is more or less an even ideological split — but with a decided emphasis on institutional memory. Five of the 10 Senate JFAC members are holdovers: co-chair C. Scott Grow of Eagle; Sens. Dave Lent and Kevin Cook, both R-Idaho Falls; Sen. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree; and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise. On JFAC, the most technical committee in the Statehouse, experience matters.
- Meanwhile, conservatives hold a decided majority on the Senate Education Committee. Lent was promoted from vice chair to chairman. But the former school trustee, and co-chair of a House-Senate working group studying school building needs, will preside over a committee stacked with conservatives: Sens. Cindy Carlson of Riggins; Scott Herndon of Sagle; Brian Lenney of Nampa; Tammy Nichols of Middleton; vice chair Ben Toews of Coeur d’Alene; and Den Hartog. It’s early, but Senate Education sets up as the battleground for a showdown over school choice legislation.
While the Senate set its lineup, the House didn’t even send mixed signals Thursday. The House adjourned for the day with no news on committee leadership or assignments, and will reconvene Friday.
All of this turnover and jockeying coincides with a pivotal period for Idaho education.
The 2023 Legislature will figure out what to do with a new $410 million for education: $330 million for K-12, and $80 million for a new fund to help prepare Idahoans for high-demand jobs. The Legislature OK’d the spending during a one-day special session in September, but didn’t decide how to spend it.
With school districts proposing a series of skyrocketing and hard-to-pass bond issues — such as the $210.2 million bond issue the Nampa School District announced this week — education lobbyists are making a hard push for the state to pony up surplus dollars on school construction.
After an education savings accounts bill narrowly failed in the House Education Committee in 2022, expect similar legislation in 2023, possibly even starting on the Senate side of the rotunda.
If you’re trying to size up this new Legislature, take heart. You aren’t alone.
Taking a break from their orientation sessions at the Statehouse Wednesday, the newbies hopped on a quick bus ride to the Boise Centre for lunch at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho’s general conference.
There, they heard a welcome from Gov. Brad Little, and an overture about working together. But they also heard a subtle reminder. Discussing the September special session that predates the newbies — and the K-12 spending and $500 million in tax cuts passed at Little’s behest — the governor pointed out that nearly 80% of Idahoans endorsed the legislation in a nonbinding advisory vote.
“Idaho’s priorities are our priorities,” Little said.
The coded message to the newbies: Don’t get too rambunctious about revisiting that stuff from September.
Lt. Gov.-elect Scott Bedke opened the ATI conference by striking a hopeful tone. Yes, he said, the newcomers will have a lot to learn. But the 22-year Statehouse veteran urged the audience of policymakers and tax wonks to see the turnover as an opportunity — a chance to craft legislation through good old-fashioned civility and communication.
“These folks will listen in a way that the old folks didn’t,” Bedke said.
Time will tell whether these newcomers are coming to town with a willingness to listen. But everyone who pays attention to the Statehouse will be listening, and watching, to see what to expect.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.
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