Lawmakers have to eat, too. But when members of the Idaho Legislature are invited to be the guests of one special interest or another, they are often served partisanship as a side dish next to their soup and sandwich.
Such was the case at two different luncheons, where the same topic was on the menu--health-insurance exchanges. The public was charged to attend each meal but legislators ate for free. Depending on your political appetite, you may consider the proposed exchanges as a rational element of the Affordable Care Act or as an evil component of Obamacare and a left-wing overreach into your personal liberty.
Somewhere in the middle is Michael Leavitt, the three-term governor of Utah and former secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Leavitt also served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Leavitt stood before a packed ballroom at Boise's Grove Hotel on Jan. 30, urging scores of legislators to get moving on developing Idaho's own health-care marketplace, rather than have one forced on them by the federal government.
"You have three choices," said Leavitt. "No. 1: fight it and die. No. 2: accept it and maybe, just maybe, you'll get a chance to change it. No. 3: lead it and prosper."
Leavitt has a vested interest. Putting aside his public service, his family-owned Leavitt Group is now the nation's second-largest privately held insurance brokerage, including its Boise office.
Indeed, as each attendee opened the luncheon program's brochure, tucked inside was a flier that said, "Say no to a federal exchange because the right solution for Idaho is a state exchange."
But the brochures on the tables of yet another luncheon, three days later, had a dramatically different message. The literature urged lawmakers to not only say no to a federal exchange but to say no to any exchange and especially to say no to any so-called Obamacare money.
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter is the first to tell anyone that he's not a fan of Obamacare, but he was also one of the first to take Obamacare money, proudly proclaiming in September 2011 that the state would grab $30.9 million in a federal grant to help begin setting up a health care exchange.
"Your government has erred," John Graham of the Pacific Research Institute told legislators at a Feb. 2 gathering sponsored by the Idaho Freedom Foundation at Beside Bardenay. "And you need to tell your governor to send that money back immediately."
The majority of the room applauded.
"OK, I guess I'm done," said Graham, who was apparently joking because he spoke for the next 30 minutes.
Graham made point after point, attempting to scare lawmakers of what he termed to be the impending doom attached to an exchange.
"If you take this money, it weakens your constitutional lawsuit," said Graham, referring to the 26-state challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, March 26.
If Graham was the right hook in the Freedom Foundation's one-two punch against Obamacare, the upper cut was delivered by Christie Herrera from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a coalition of 2,000 state lawmakers from across the nation who oppose the federally mandated health exchanges. Huston Sen. Patti Anne Lodge is the Idaho State Chair for ALEC.
Herrera had even done the lawmakers what she considered a huge favor by writing a boilerplate resolution opposing the exchanges. The two-and-a-half page handout even included all of the necessary "whereases" and "therefores." All a legislator need do was follow the instructions that said "insert state."
Before heading back to the Statehouse, a number of the lawmakers grabbed Herrera's other handout, a neatly bound 24-page "State Legislators' Guide to Repealing Obamacare."