A good start to the 2012 Legislature

Here are some positive observations from the first week of the Legislature:

First, Gov. Butch Otter proposed a budget that includes $45 million in tax relief. While the details are up for grabs, this is a good start. Could the Legislature provide even more tax relief than the governor proposed? I think so. I’ve run some numbers, and if the Legislature were to hold the line on Medicaid and cut government agencies by a mere 1 percent from the current year’s budget, the state could still afford raises for government employees and provide as much as $100 million in tax relief — more than double what Otter proposed. The careful observer will wonder how the state could give raises and cut agencies. The answer: Get rid of those agencies that defy the proper role of government, are unnecessary or are duplicative. I’ve heard that the days of government cuts are behind us. I’m hoping lawmakers didn’t get that memo.

Second, the governor softened his pitch for starting a state health insurance exchange. Having been very vocal about an exchange in the months leading up to the legislative session, many expected Otter to offer a fist-pounding moment where he dug in and promised to cajole lawmakers into implementing Obamacare. But Otter backed down in his State of the State message, basically saying that while his agencies applied for $20 million to start the exchange, that doesn’t mean he’s all in. “My decision to allow the application to be submitted simply preserved the opportunity for you and all Idahoans to discuss our options and decide what’s best for our citizens,” Otter told lawmakers. No strenuous support for an exchange there. Indeed, even though the federal government approved the grant, Otter didn’t even include the $20 million in his budget.

Other good news: Otter’s contention that the state would lose $300 million in Medicaid funding should we proceed forward sans a health insurance exchange faded. Otter acknowledged he misspoke.

Third, there’s a useful discussion taking place at the Statehouse about ethics in government. The Democrats have a proposal to create a new, independent ethics commission. The draft I saw doesn’t appear to be very independent, however, being ensconced in the attorney general’s office. That’s easy to fix, however. The Democrats appear to have taken a minimalist approach to the concept of an ethics panel. Instead of creating a new government bureaucracy, they’ve created a small citizen panel to review complaints. I’m still a little leery that it will one day grow up to be a big government agency. But any discussion of ethics leads to an environment that not only discourages corrupting influences, it leads to other public-confidence-building-reform ideas at the Capitol. For example, perhaps the Legislature should put in place a mechanism to make conflicts of interest easier to spot and address. Perhaps the Legislature should move the filing deadline and primary election dates back. The filing deadline for office is March 9. The Legislature will likely still be session, leaving lawmakers with an opportunity to leave controversial votes until after candidates have locked in their decisions to run. The filing deadline and May primary could easily be moved until later, giving voters a chance to fully analyze incumbent voting records.

These kinds of discussions are taking place at the Legislature, and they have real currency. Less prevalent: the desire to give government new powers over the lives of ordinary citizens. But the day is still young. It was a very good week, but there are many more weeks to go.

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