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Malloy: Legislative budget panel has a new look

Freshman legislators in Idaho are advised by their senior colleagues to do three things in their first term in the Statehouse: Listen, learn and keep their mouths shut.

The advice normally is well taken, because there’s a lot to learn about the process, the politics and the workings of state government. But for Sens. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville and Jeff Agenbroad of Nampa, forget the training wheels. They have been placed on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which is the most grueling and time-consuming assignment in the Legislature. It’s also the most powerful since that’s essentially the place where budgets live or die.

The funny thing is, Crabtree and Agenbroad wanted to serve on JFAC.

“I was told there were two committees I should not take in my first year – JFAC and Education,” Crabtree said, chuckling. “I don’t know which one is the frying pan and which one is the fire, but I’m on both. But that’s OK; I’m not going there to vacation.”

Agenbroad doesn’t have it any easier. His committee assignments include the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. One of the big issues there is figuring out a solution to providing health insurance to the working poor, which is sure to be one of the leading issues of the next session.

But the heavy lifting will be on JFAC. Crabtree and Agenbroad say they have a lot to learn about state budgets, but think they are well-suited for the task.

Agenbroad, a vice president at Zions Bank, knows all about crunching numbers; he’s been doing that as a banker for more than 30 years. “Government accounting can be a little different. What I’ll need to do is develop a better understanding of the agencies and what’s behind the numbers.”

Crabtree is a former president of the Idaho Cattle Association and Idaho Beef Council and served on the National Cattleman’s Beef Association Board. His experiences give him some insight into what to expect from government agencies.

“I don’t have preconceived notions … my eyes and ears are wide open,” he said. “My measure will be with evaluation. Some people may be good at planning and implementing but are unable to evaluate effectiveness in a measurable way. If you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it, and government isn’t good at measuring.”

Crabtree and Agenbroad plan to do plenty of listening and learning in their first year. But they’ll be asking a lot of questions, and seem to have a grasp of what questions to ask.

Although they are the only two freshmen on the budget committee, they are not the only newcomers. Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint and Rep. Maxine Bell of Jerome will be greeting eight other new members who will be giving fresh eyes to the budget and geographic balance to the committee.

The Idaho Panhandle has two new seats on the budget committee in addition to Crabtree, whose district includes Shoshone County. Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene and Rep. Sage Dixon of Ponderay are Republicans serving in their second terms.

Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, takes over as vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Two Boise Democrats, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking and Rep. Melissa Winthrow, are two other newcomers from the Treasure Valley.

Other new members are Sens. Abby Lee (R-Fruitland) and Mark Nye (D-Pocatello, and Rep. Neil Anderson (R-Blackfoot).

Ten new members provide a significant overhaul and some challenges on the budget committee. But as Keough sees it, there’s no shortage of intelligence and desire to get the job done.

“I’m excited about the new legislators on the committee. All around, the committee is well balanced geographically,” she said. “By nature, I think all the legislators will be fiscally conservative.” Keough welcomes the challenges, along with the new sets of eyes on the budget process. “They take their responsibility seriously as stewards of taxpayer dollars, and they will do a good job on the budgets.”

Department heads should take note: This isn’t your grandfather’s budget committee, so don’t get too comfortable in the budget presentations. And even though there is a revenue surplus, don’t expect an automatic rubber stamp to requested budget increases.

JFAC appears to be pretty solid, with both the new and old faces.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: Republicans face a dangerous first 100 days

Buckle up. The next 100 days in Washington will be tumultuous.

Donald Trump and leading Republicans plan to overwhelm the 115th Congress, which convenes Tuesday, with a mind-numbing array of changes. By the end of April, they hope to have confirmed a new Supreme Court justice, cleared a huge infrastructure measure, and be well on the way to enacting big and permanent tax cuts along with sharp cutbacks in spending on domestic programs affecting the poor. They may throw in some education reform and immigration crackdowns.

On his first day in office, Trump is expected to issue sweeping executive orders that undo many of the actions taken by President Barack Obama on issues such as the environment and immigration.

That’s just the formal agenda. Trump, who already has weighed in more than any other president-elect in recent memory — with tweets praising Vladimir Putin or changing nuclear policy — predictably will create new controversies on his own.

Congress is preparing for this enormous workload. Abandoning the leisurely schedule of recent years, lawmakers are slating four or five day workweeks for the next three months, except for a week off in February.

Despite the Republicans’ total control there are possible fissures that could create complications. Trump’s priority is to quickly enact the biggest infrastructure measure since the Interstate Highway System. That could get support from Democrats if it doesn’t include anti-union provisions and isn’t funded by cutting other programs. Trump wouldn’t care if it blows a big hole in the deficit, though that would be a problem for many conservative Republicans.

Congressional Republicans say Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence claim they’ll essentially delegate the substantive agenda to House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders on Capitol Hill, though the president-elect already has had several screaming phone calls with top Republican members of Congress.

Speaker Ryan’s top priorities are permanent tax cuts, skewed to the wealthy and investment, accompanied by cutbacks to domestic programs. If that proves unpopular, will Trump, who doesn’t like to be associated with unpopular things, pull the rug out?

Republicans remain tied in knots over Obamacare. They are going to repeal it quickly with gaping questions and loopholes when it comes to how and when it will be replaced. But the real possibility this could create chaos and cause the health insurance market to crater scares them.

Of course, the initial battles in the next few weeks will be over confirming Trump’s appointments. Most will make it through, unless they stumble badly in hearings or a new controversy or scandal is uncovered.

But Democrats and a few Republicans will put many of them through a grilling. The secretary of state-designate, Rex Tillerson, the chief executive officer of Exxon-Mobil, will face scrutiny and opposition from most Democrats because of his closeness to the autocratic Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Tillerson is very likely to be confirmed. If the national security activist John Bolton is nominated as deputy secretary of state, he might be rejected, which is why Trump probably will bow to the campaign against him.

Many of the domestic cabinet appointments, almost uniformly staunch conservatives, will be questioned not only about their views but, in some cases, about their qualifications. One or two could go under.

But these will only be a warm-up for the likely battle in the next few months over Trump’s pick to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Democrats are bitter that Republicans refused for more than nine months to even consider Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. Although Trump released the names of possible appointees during the campaign, no one believes he has given any thought to this issue or knows much about it.

Given this void, it’s anyone’s guess whether he’d select a hard-right jurist, which would please the party’s base. But unless Republican leaders change the rules, it will take 60 votes, or at least eight Democrats, to win Senate confirmation. A more moderate conservative nominee, though perhaps easily confirmable, would alienate activists.

The big economic issues will dominate the legislative calendar as Republicans calculate they have to enact sweeping changes by July 4. Trump will enter the White House less popular than any recent predecessor; if history is any guide, a president’s clout, ability to apply political pressure and galvanize public support, usually diminishes over time.

If they achieve their goals, and work together, consumer and business confidence could be soaring, the economy humming, adding jobs, and Republicans won’t have much to worry about.

That entails threading delicate political needles and enjoying a lot of luck. The zeal to make the supply-side tax cuts permanent means that, under the budget resolutions, they can’t add to the deficit in the second decade. Even with the gimmicks Ryan and others will employ that’s not anywhere close to achievable. To do so, they might then accompany these tax cuts with sharp cutbacks in federal spending on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. That juxtaposition makes a few Republicans uncomfortable.

But nothing worries this new majority more than health care. Attacking Obamacare for the past seven years has been low-hanging fruit. But devising their own health plan, which they’ve never done, without millions of people losing coverage and hospitals and insurance companies getting clobbered, is beyond daunting.

They would do well to remember the admonition years ago of the late Bob Teeter, one of America’s great pollsters, who foresaw that education is a winning issue politically but health care is a loser for whoever owns it. Soon that will be Republicans.


Columns
IDAHO VIEW
Idaho View: Hunting and fishing fee hikes not a slam dunk

This appeared in the Idaho Press-Tribune:

At first glance, the Idaho Fish and Game Department’s request for modest increases in fishing and hunting fees looks reasonable. It could raise $1 million annually and avoid further cuts in services for Idaho’s hunters and fishermen.

According to director Virgil Moore, the department has not had an increase in these fees in 12 years. As he tells it, it seems right for the Legislature — which has rejected past fee-increase proposals — to give it the green light this time.

But nothing is that simple in statehouse politics. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, a member of the House Resources and Conservation Committee, said Fish and Game officials must demonstrate their need for a fee increase.

“As with any other agency, they have to prove to us that they need the money and what they would be using it for,” she said. “You don’t automatically say ‘yes’ just because they want it.”

Neither Boyle nor stone-faced legislators are impressed with threats by agency heads to cut services if their demands are not met by lawmakers. It’s the oldest trick in the book by agency heads. “They’ve been threatening that for years,” Boyle said.

Fish and Game does not show the marks of an agency that is in dire straits financially, she said. Budgets continue to go up, there does not appear to be a significant reduction in manpower and the department is buying land. Last month, the Fish and Game Commission approved land deals that could open 11,000 acres for hunting and fishing.

“They have added to their property list significantly. They’re getting the money from somewhere,” she said.

Hunting and fishing tags are only a part of what the department receives in revenue. The department receives funds from the Bonneville and Idaho Power dams, and various grants are available through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The department also gets money from the Pittman-Robertson Act, which is a federal excise tax on the sale of guns and ammunition.

It doesn’t help the department’s cause to be at loggerheads with legislators, who think auctioning tags is a good idea. Political stalemates are rarely productive for agencies seeking legislative action. Otter failed to re-appoint two members of the commission, causing speculation that the governor’s decision was based on the department’s refusal to go with the will of legislators.

Even with those thorny issues, Boyle said she’s not outright rejecting the Fish and Game’s proposal for an increase in hunting and fishing tags. There’s no denying the agency’s contribution to the quality of life of Idahoans. But the department is going to have to make a strong case, which is a reasonable expectation.

Boyle, as a member of a committee that will be judging the merits of the proposal, will be asking some of the tough questions — which is a reasonable expectation of a state representative.