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Unelected Idaho senator holds key to adjournment

Dan Popkey
March 29, 2012
Idaho Statesman

The most important lawmaker in Idaho today is an appointed senator who's spent three months on the job.

Republican leaders need his vote, and Gov. Butch Otter has asked for it. Colleagues ready to call it quits are dying to know what he'll do.

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, is handling the pressure with veteran cool, declining to say whether he favors a full Senate vote on a $35.7 million income tax cut that will benefit only corporations and individuals in the highest tax bracket.

A family of four in that bracket - gross income of $100,000 - would get $71 in annual relief, a trade-off that may not be all that popular in Johnson's blue-collar swing district. Johnson's May 15 primary opponent, Rep. Jeff Nesset, R-Lewiston, was one of eight House Republicans to oppose the bill; the safest course for Johnson would be to match Nesset.

Johnson posted on his Facebook page a photo of Otter lobbying him on the bill. "He was telling me his position and I was listening," Johnson said Wednesday. "Just listening. It's a big decision. We want to get this right."

After a four-week delay, House Bill 563 is scheduled for a hearing at 8 a.m. Thursday in Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee.

"I can just promise you it's going to be interesting," said Johnson, 52, solid waste manager for the city of Lewiston. "Some of these tougher votes put you in the crucible and you're tested by fire. You learn something about yourself. Do you have what it takes to be a legislator?"

Johnson, who answers "yes" to his own question, was one of two Senate Republicans to oppose the bill evicting Occupy Boise. A Catholic who quotes St. Francis of Assisi - "Pray always and when necessary use words" - he was one of three Republicans to oppose Right to Life of Idaho's end-of-life bill, but he did vote for the group's ultrasound mandate.

Wednesday night, rather than be wined and dined by a Chamber of Commerce lobbyist pressing for the bill, Johnson had other plans. "I'm going to take my landlady to dinner to thank her for letting me stay."

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said he's hoping Johnson will vote to send the bill to the floor without recommendation. "But I don't know what he's going to do," said Hill, R-Rexburg. "That's where the rub is. We're not sure we've got the votes."

Hill and Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher of Meridian are confident they have the votes in the full Senate, but Fulcher is preparing the ground should the committee nix the tax-cut bill. "I think this needs some time," Fulcher said. "There are some other ideas out there to put more money into savings."

Does that mean the Legislature could be back next week, as many fear? "I don't know," said Fulcher, "but that's my prediction."

Fulcher, who jawboned Johnson after a 90-minute GOP caucus on the subject Wednesday, may be trying to apply peer pressure by apportioning him blame for delay.

Johnson's endured worse. For nine years, he worked for ROOTS, a North Idaho business-labor group trying to free up timber supply in the face of hostile federal regulation. In 1995, he became a single dad with four kids under 8 years old. Raised in the wind and cold of North Dakota and Minnesota, he's been unemployed and self-employed.

When he sought the Senate appointment in December, he failed a litmus test when he said he wouldn't sign an oath to adhere to the party platform. But he still topped the GOP committee's list of nominees to Otter, who appointed him.

With a master's in forestry economics, Johnson is a just-the-facts-ma'am guy. As the Senate rolled though bills Wednesday, he was studying the Consumer Price Index on his laptop, fidgeting like a gifted child in his leather chair.

Three of the last four years, Lewiston garbage rates have dropped under Johnson's management. He thinks choosing a more modest inflation measure could save the state money on budgets with automatic growth built in. "If I'm back next year, I'd like to work on that."

His approach on the biggest vote of his nascent career will be governed by that wonky thinking. "I go into the committee with an open mind. I'm a very reasonable person. I've been asked to make an informed decision. I'll listen to both sides and decide."


Originally posted at http://www.idahostatesman.com/2012/03/29/2054987/unelected-idaho-senator-holds.html

The editorial posted here is provided by permission of its original publisher and does not necessarily reflect the views of Idaho Public Television.

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