Translucent Government 

Even open meetings wouldn't tell the whole story

Once again, it took a lawsuit to make things happen at the Idaho Statehouse.

No, not school funding. No, not abortion law re-toolings.

Instead, we're talking about the considerably more yawn-inducing subject of open meetings, and whether Idaho lawmakers should be required to have them. So it was a lawsuit by the Idaho Press Club that spurred Idaho legislative leaders to make some changes in their open-meetings laws.

But while some changes now under proposal would make the Legislature a more open place, some secrets will always remain buried.

Two years ago, the Idaho Press Club, a group this writer belongs to, sued the Legislature, saying the Senate and House had both closed several meetings to reporters or the public when in fact they should have allowed the people in. A District Court disagreed, and the Press Club appealed, all the way to the state Supreme Court.

For the record, the Idaho Press Club lost--by a three to two vote. In her hunt for some form of positive spin to put on the matter, the leader of the Idaho Press Club was strangely prescient.

"If this case prompts the Legislature to look at how it operates and be more open to the citizens, then it was well worth it," said Betsy Russell, a Spokane Spokesman-Review reporter who acts as president of the Idaho Press Club.

Apparently, the case did prompt some soul-searching. But, for the record, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis said he'd been planning to make changes to Idaho's Open Meetings rules well before the lawsuit. How ever he got there, Davis is now pushing to restructure the Legislature's rules on just when they are able to shut the public out. His proposal would force lawmakers to open all meetings and close them only in cases of certain extraordinary circumstances--such as pending litigation or discipline of an employee.

Democrats, such as Sen. Kate Kelly of Boise, have their own ideas for new rules: keep all committees open, all the time. As you might imagine, this competing proposal has little chance of becoming the law of the land in a Senate controlled by Davis and his party.

But Davis got a boost for his proposal by Keith Allred, the director of the group The Common Interest, who testified that the 850 Republican, Democrat and Independent voters that make up his group agreed with doing it the Davis way.

"The rule before you would be the model rule for the West," Allred told the Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday. But while the Davis proposal will get its day on the floor of the Senate this week, it still won't uncover all the horse trading that takes place in the Idaho Legislature. To do that, lawmakers would have to ask more of the real money men of the Statehouse. Not the leaders of finance committees, but the authors of other checks: lobbyists.

When he emerged from the floor of the Senate after watching the defeat of his bill over Idaho aquifer recharge, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb told a KBCI Channel 2 news crew he'd seen the handiwork of lobbyists, and didn't think it was pretty.

"It's kind of like going out in the field and seeing a dead cow that's been a dead cow for a few days with all the flies on it," Newcomb told KBCI. "This bill had so many lobbyists working it right from the get-go."

Newcomb has years of experience to help him see such swarms. The rest of us have to rely on other indicators.

At the end of February, state records show that several corporate entities that led the money race in terms of dollars spent making lawmakers agree with them.

At the top of the heap is the Idaho Potato Commission. The state agency founded to promote Idaho Potatoes spent over $10,000 this session to, presumably, hype spuds. Because of Idaho's lobbyist reporting laws, we know what the Potato Commission spent and when, because they spent so much. When you spend more than $70 on a lawmaker, you have to report exactly what you do with the money. The Potato Commission bankrolled a lavish banquet for lawmakers, complete with gourmet renditions of--you guessed it.

But other interests spent almost as much money, just not enough to require them to reveal how. When we hear that the Idaho Association of Realtors spent $8,024 in February, we only know they spent it. Because they wisely kept their expenses below that magical $70-per-lawmaker mark, we'll never know just what sort of attentions they lavished on legislators. Likewise the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, which spent $9,453 in the middle of the session. Among other things, the Chamber was pushing for full authorization of further GARVEE bond financing for Idaho roads, and for a new community college system.

Again, because these groups didn't spend more than $70 per lawmaker, their exact methodologies are hidden. As one Capitol staffer told me, that's a lot of lunch and bar tabs going more or less hidden.

Other lobbyists were in the mix, of course, and the reports are still trickling in to the Idaho Secretary of State's Office. We won't know until lawmakers go home just how much money Idaho Power spent trying to convince lawmakers that Newcomb's water recharge bill was a bad idea.

Allred notes it's more than just money.

"The greater part of the influence is that these are citizen legislators; they have no staff," Allred said. "The greater influence is the lobbyists providing their perspectives. It's not the best source of information."

He's done the math, too: Idaho now has three registered lobbyists for every lawmaker in the Statehouse.

"That is unprecedented," Allred said. "We've never been so organized along special interests."

Open meetings are an important start, he agrees. But a more transparent tracking of special-interest money would be a step that could tell citizens much more than the minutes of a committee hearing.

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