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Conservative management in the Idaho House

Last week, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a minimum-wage bill that does little for Idaho workers.

Republican caucus chairman Ken Roberts opened debate on the bill by explaining how it merely tracks Idaho's minimum wage with the federal wage floor. Rep. Ken Andrus from Lava Hot Springs, a co-sponsor, explained to the House that the problem for poor people is not their low wages, but the fact that they don't work.

Enter new Speaker of the House, Lawerence Denney, a six-term, mostly soft-spoken farmer from Midvale in a Winnie the Pooh tie: "Is there further debate?" Denney asked, and then, as several Democrats rose to speak, said, "Hearing none ..."

Denney was joking, of course. He let the Democrats, who mainly voted against the symbolic bill, say their piece. But Denney's quip was symbolic as well, revealing the new face of the 2007 House leadership.

In polite conversation, pundits and political watchers say this is a year when "new leadership" is getting used to a "new governor." A year when not much is happening. Or as Lt. Gov. Jim Risch put it Friday, a "laid back" session.

"I just don't see the acrimony," Risch said. "This is a session that, for a reporter, it's awfully hard to make a living."

But either Risch is not a very good reporter, or he missed the bitter fight for leadership of the House that preceded the session. A fight where Denney, along with the calculating Roberts, swaggering Majority Leader Mike Moyle and steady Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke won out over a more moderate Republican slate.

Or maybe Risch, who presides over the Senate, is not privy to what goes on behind the closed doors of the Republican caucus.

"I think it's more arrogant and in your face than it was last year," said Rep. Robert Ring, a moderate Republican from Caldwell who has had his share of run-ins with the new leadership this year.

Ring, a retired physician, was criticized earlier this month when he, along with three Republican colleagues and a group of Democrats on the House State Affairs Committee, killed a bill to close primary elections before it had a hearing. Denney was "put-out," "red-faced" or "screaming his head off," depending whom you believe. Several of the offending open-primary advocates in the GOP are now being punished, in the form of stalled legislation.

"I read the bill, and it seemed like not a very good bill, so I voted not to print it," Ring said. He said it seems like there is a flow of party-line votes in the House.

Moyle routinely stands up to debate on what he calls "leadership bills," i.e., the ones followers should support. Some have said Denney is playing second fiddle to Roberts, Moyle and Bedke, but Meridian Republican Rep. Mark Snodgrass does not agree.

"There's a lot of strong personalities that we have in our leadership team," Snodgrass said.

"You know, Lawerence Denny's a big boy," he said. "No one is going to tell him what to do." Snodgrass also faced the wrath of Denney after he, too, helped shoot down the first closed primary bill (the measure has since returned).

Denney, sitting in his office beneath a wolf skin on his wall that he bought at the Canyon County Lincoln Day dinner, said he is surprised by the amount of paperwork.

"It is amazing to me how administrative the job is," he said.

Roberts, whom I spoke to outside Denny's office last week, said the House leadership team is working together closely.

"Mike, Scott and I finish each other's sentences," Roberts said.

Conspicuously absent from that troika, as one Statehouse observer has labeled the three leaders, was Speaker Denney.

When asked about this omission, Roberts quickly added Denney to the mix, saying the speaker stays focused on running the floor.

"We've all kind of assumed different roles," Roberts said, making them more of a Gang of Four, a phrase used by another longtime legislative observer.

"There's an incredible level of philosophical and political struggle going on," said Roger Sherman, spokesman for United Vision for Idaho.

The Senate has the occasional will to temper the lower house's partisan fires. While it may be a quiet session in terms of major new initiatives, a fight over tax policy is being waged between the House and the Senate.

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee, stacked with the full troika of Roberts, Moyle and Bedke, churns out breaks to businesses and a lopsided grocery tax credit.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter jokes about the cool reception his grocery-tax-relief plan and his other suggestions have received, but the Senate may be doing some of his work for him. Last week Republican Sen. Tim Corder of Mountain Home worked with a bipartisan group of senators to hold the House grocery tax measure for amendments. Their goal, Corder said, was to take more time to analyze the House bill against others, like Otter's that didn't make it out of the House.

"We don't have a policy that's dictating that we should do this,"Corder said. "We have our gut."

Corder was scribbling on a steno pad late Friday, making a list of tax exemptions and credits that could be tacked onto the grocery bill. He said the House is not sure what to make of this kind of talk.

"They're wondering how serious we are, I think," Corder said.

The Senate's moves are reminiscent of the terms of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who got more help from a moderate Senate than a tough-talking House. Otter legislative liaison Bob Wells smiled and repeated one of his favorite spins: The governor has an outstanding relationship with lawmakers.

"Maybe we won't have to weigh in," he said.

You can reach Nathaniel Hoffman at 208-331-8371.

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