Friday, April 1, 2011

Democrats stall House proceedings

Lawmakers want hearings on tax increase, referendum

Express Staff Writer

Express photo by Roland Lane Democrats in the Idaho House are lobbying for introduction of a tax bill that would raise the price of cigarettes by $1.25 a pack. Though Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said she doesn’t think the bill has the votes to pass, Democrats hope its introduction would build momentum for next session.

Democrats in the Idaho House are using one of the few methods available to make their voices heard in a Republican-controlled Legislature: slowing down the legislative process.

"There are very few tools for the minority to get the majority to pay attention," said Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum. "So we're just stomping our feet."

Normally, the third reading of a bill can be disposed of by unanimous consent. But Democrats have been objecting, requiring that bills be read in full before debates and votes can be held.

Jaquet said the tactic is one of the minority party's only means of garnering Republican attention as the session draws to a close.

"It requires the majority to sit down with the minority and say, 'What do you want?'" she said.

The Democrats' demands are straightforward: The party wants to see the introduction of two bills in a House committee before the end of the session—one proposing an increase in the cigarette sales tax and the other proposing an advisory vote on Superintendent Tom Luna's education reform package.

"We're not asking to have them passed, because we don't have the votes," Jaquet said.

However, she said that once the bills are introduced, they may generate some momentum in preparation for next session.

The tax increase would raise the price of cigarettes by $1.25 a pack. It would bring $51.3 million to the state annually. It would partly offset the $83 million cost of tobacco-related illnesses in the Medicaid program.

The second would place a question on the 2012 general election ballot asking voters to weigh in on Luna's education reforms, in response to what Democrats are calling widespread public outcry.

The bills have implemented a merit pay system for teachers while limiting negotiation rights and cutting funding for teacher salaries. The bills also provide funding for more classroom technology.

As of press time Thursday, two of the three bills had been signed into law.

Jaquet said there's nothing to prevent either bill's introduction in committee, apart from Republican will.

"You wouldn't believe how many bills are still being introduced," she said. "The Republicans are still holding hearings on bills and cranking them out. We have a mimeograph machine over here."

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the Senate Democrats had no plans for a similar strategy. Senate Democrats forced full readings of the three education bills, but Stennett said that was due to the important nature of the bills, not an attempt to slow the process.

Jaquet said despite the slowed process, she still expects to be adjourned by Wednesday, April 6. The Senate had called for adjournment by April 1, but Stennett said she believed the body would convene for at least a few days next week.

She said the House Democrats' strategy is risky.

"Sometimes, you just make the body mad," she said. "Then anything you want, they'll say no to."

Katherine Wutz:

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