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Idaho Legislature kills public hearings on budgets

Dan Popkey
January 19, 2013
Idaho Statesman

A noble experiment is over, a victim of turf wars, time management and the struggle over how lawmakers respond to repeal of K-12 reform.

The wildly popular public testimony in the joint budget committee - held in 2011 and 2012 after 92 years of exclusion - was canceled Friday.

House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill were the executioners.

"I just think we need to get back to the old approach," said Bedke, R-Oakley.

"I'll take the blame," said Hill, R-Rexburg. "It's time to go back to the way that has served us so well."

The decision was a body blow to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who promoted the idea when deep cuts in education and human services drew 1,500 people to two four-hour hearings in 2011. Four times as many people watched live streaming of the first hearing than Gov. Butch Otter's State of the State address 11 days earlier.

"I think spending the people's money is of the utmost importance and we ought to be listening to the public before spending money, above anything else," Cameron said.

Cameron was so heartsick, his wife surprised him with a visit to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Friday as he announced cancellation of the hearings. "I wanted to give you a wink while you were making the announcement," Linda Cameron said.

Public testimony convinced the committee to reorder spending priorities, including funding revival of a suicide prevention hotline.

"In my opinion, those were life-changing events," Sen. Cameron said. "I guess I'm in favor of openness and transparency."

Cameron said he thought hearings would help a record-size freshman class. "It's important for them to see the face of the father with a handicapped child or the parent concerned about their child's education."

But Bedke and Hill said hearings that made sense in the Great Recession are no longer needed.

Their chief fear is the budget committee getting ahead of policy-making committees, including Education and Health & Welfare. A task force appointed by Otter to work through the wreckage left by voter repeal of Students Come First complicates matters.

"I'm more comfortable having the policy committees in the lead," Bedke said. "It was the policy that was rejected by the voters, not the budgets."

Hill agreed, saying citizens can still talk to germane committees. "I know some people are going to see this as excluding the stakeholders," he said. "No, they'll still have every opportunity to come to hearings."

But speaking to JFAC, by far the most powerful committee, carried special weight because budgets are the truest expression of legislative will.

"That's a workhorse committee," said Bedke, a former member who insisted he's not aiming to curtail its power but respecting the authority of two Students Come First champions, Senate Education Chairman John Goedde and House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt.

"I'm comfortable having them take the lead, rather than having them read about all the good things that came out of the listening session," Bedke said.

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, a JFAC vice chairman, acknowledged that resentment of the committee's clout might have played a role in the cancellation.

Bolz and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, didn't join Cameron and Senate Finance Vice Chairwoman Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, in fighting to hear the commoners.

"When you have hearings like that there can be expectations that you're going to do everything they said they wanted," Bolz said.

Bell was never enthusiastic, though she was impressed after the first hearing. "We ought to bottle this up and share it with a few other places," she said in January 2011.

Now, she says, "I'm very concerned that we would be jumping out ahead of the task force that's trying to sort out a new direction for education."

JFAC's hearings complicated leadership's ability to control the message. They received heavy media coverage of compelling testimony from ordinary citizens.

Now, those voices won't be heard by the budget writers, including the 12 newcomers on the 20-member panel.

The committee will return to a reliable daily diet of agency heads with PowerPoints pitching their budgets. Bureaucrats will again provide the entire body of testimony.

Hill said the schedule played a role in the decision. "The biggest job that we have in this Legislature is to set the budget," he said. "Two weeks after, we go home. That's our timetable."

Cameron said he understands the pressure following the defeat of Students Come First, which he and Keough opposed. He hopes to revive public input in 2014.

Keough, who was moved to tears during a 2011 hearing, said it's important to remember the context of establishing the public hearings: Citizens were demanding to be heard.

"I think the co-chairs took historic strides in answering the criticism to open the process," she said. "I don't fully understand all the background on leadership's concerns."

Neither, I suspect, will the taxpaying public.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

Originally posted at

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