Little on his first legislative session as governor
The Idaho Press sat down with Gov. Brad Little to discuss his first legislative session, his relationship with the Legislature, and more. Here’s some of what he had to say:
ON INITIATIVES: ‘IT SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN A SURPRISE’
Little’s first two vetoes were of SB 1159 and HB 296, both bills to make it much tougher to qualify a voter initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot.
“Our certainty was 90-something percent that it would be struck down,” Little said. “And it would risk the existing (law), and that was what got my attention.”
Little said he likes the idea that Idaho’s initiative laws “make sure all of Idaho is represented if we’re going to make laws, because we do that with the Idaho Legislature — every acre of Idaho is represented.”
He added, “As Idaho becomes more urbanized, this comes back to going to two fairs and getting all the signatures.” He also mentioned technology making the task easier, because signature-gatherers can carry an iPad and have data at their fingertips, though they still have to get people to sign individually in person.
Little’s veto letter on SB 1159 sounded oddly like a letter of support, listing all the things he liked about the bill while bemoaning the fact that it wouldn’t stand up in court. Asked why the letter didn’t mention the right to initiative and referendum, Little said, “It is in our Constitution, and in fact I didn’t think I needed to put that in there, because all along during the electoral process … I said I’m going to comply with the will of the people. I said that a thousand times. That’s just who I am, and where I come from.”
He said he’d like “to adjust it a little bit, but I darn sure don’t want to make it impossible. Which is what Wyoming has, and what 1159 would have given us.”
Lawmakers shouldn’t have been surprised that the Medicaid expansion initiative came forward and passed, Little said. “These are my friends, but Medicaid is a good example. The Legislature time and time again said we have to address the people in the gap. And every interim committee said we have to address the people in the gap. And in essence, the people said, ‘OK, we’re going to address the people in the gap.’ It shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
ON JUSTICE REINVESTMENT
“There’s a pretty big delta between the House and Senate on this,” the governor said.
He noted that new Senate Judiciary Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, is at one end of the spectrum, while the House, which has twice passed legislation to revisit mandatory minimum drug trafficking sentences, is at the other. Lakey this year didn’t allow a hearing on the bill in his committee.
“There’s middle ground that I think we ought to address,” Little said. He said he hopes his upcoming anti-opioid abuse initiative will help move the state forward in that area, in cooperation with the state’s judicial branch.
Little noted that his state prisons chief, Josh Tewalt, says more than three-quarters of the offenders in state prisons are returnees who’ve violated parole, probation or rider sentences.
“We’ve gotta fix that,” Little said. The state “absolutely” needs to do more in its justice reinvestment initiative, he said; lawmakers this year authorized an interim committee overseeing that to continue meeting. “We didn’t do the reinvestment,” Little said. “We didn’t have the alternative programs. I’m very happy with Josh and what he’s doing over at Corrections, and we’ll be working on that.”
ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH LAWMAKERS
Little noted that he invited every freshman lawmaker to meet with him in the governor’s office. “There’s no agenda,” he said. “They can come in and talk about whatever they want.”
“If they wanted advice, I always advise freshmen to learn about the fiscal impact,” he said. “I say, ‘Read the fiscal note, understand it.’”
“The other thing I advise ’em is when they’re approached by the legislative advisers (lobbyists), you know, ask them who their client is. I had kinda been around the horn before I got into the Senate, but I saw some of my fellow freshmen thinking that they were getting advice from somebody on one issue, and it was actually on something else. I said, ‘Just be aware of that.’”
He noted that before he issued his vetoes this year, he brought in the sponsors of both bills in advance and “gave them a heads-up.” He did the same on other actions, he said.
“I think there’s a couple of ’em that probably don’t think it’s great,” he said of the relationship, “but I’ve been around for a long time: the Kempthorne administration, the Risch administration, the Otter administration. And because of the time I spent in leadership, and the good work that Bobbi-Jo and her crew have done downstairs,” Little said he got feedback from lawmakers all along. He also went to some of the evening receptions that lawmakers attend, just to visit with them. And he periodically had lunch in the legislative dining room, though he said he avoided that late in the session “when it was a little bit brutal down there.”
Frayed relations between the two houses aren’t uncommon late in the session, he noted. “I remember one time, the Senate always appoints a committee to go over and wait up on the House and tell ’em they’ve adjourned. I remember one time Bob Geddes said, ‘Brad, you’re the only guy I can send over there that won’t get thrown out.’ Those were those epic battles between Bart Davis and Mike Moyle that took place,” he recalled. “But they were shooting hostages at an abnormal rate toward the end of the session, and I think the drop-dead bill was prima facie evidence of that.”
In legislative speak, “shooting hostages” refers to one house or the other killing a bill that it knows is very important to the other house, regardless of the consequences. The “drop-dead bill” is the must-pass administrative rules bill that passes each year to extend all rules that weren’t nixed; this year, that bill passed the Senate, but died in the House.
“It was not good, it wasn’t,” Little said. “I try and put myself into what it’s going to be like next January,” he said. “We’ll be fine.”
Asked his biggest regret from this year’s session, his first as governor, Little said, “Probably the biggest regret is that they didn’t leave on a more congenial basis, because we’ve got things to do in the interim, and I wish that I didn’t have to be a marriage counselor.”
ON THE BALANCE OF POWERS AND THE RULES FIGHT
After nearly a decade in the Senate, another near-decade as lieutenant governor and president of the Senate — a position with one foot in the executive branch and the other in the legislative — and now as governor, Little said the balance of power in Idaho’s state government already tilts toward the legislative branch. “They have quite a bit right now,” he said. “Relative to other states, from a balance of power standpoint, the Idaho Legislature has a robust role in the rules process.”
Unlike any other state, Idaho lawmakers have veto power over all new agency administrative rules, which they review at the start of every legislative session. This year, a fight between the House and Senate resulted in a breakdown of the process that left thousands of pages of state administrative rules to expire by June 30; now it’s up to the executive branch to reinstate them. The House wanted a single house of the Legislature to be able to unilaterally veto any rule; the Senate opposed that change.
“I’m not opposed to looking at it, but I am opposed to categorically giving them carte blanche power, because they expect us, me and my agencies and all the great state employees around the state, to implement these,” Little said. When laws are passed at either the state or federal level, “To get things done, we have to implement some of these rules. Our negotiated rulemaking process, it’s a little nerdy, it’s a little in the weeds, but the agencies that do it most are the ones that do it best.”
The state Department of Environmental Quality, for example, has to implement lots of rules, including controversial ones. “Under Toni Hardesty and subsequent with the last two directors, almost everybody, whether they’re on the conservation side or the industrial side, will say the DEQ negotiated rulemaking process is one of the best,” Little said. “Some of the other agencies that don’t do as much negotiated rulemaking aren’t as open and welcoming to comment as DEQ is, but everybody’s going to protest a DEQ rule, so that’s why they’re so good at it.”
Rules can only implement laws. If state lawmakers really wanted to micromanage every detail of how state agencies carry out the laws they pass, Little said, “They can do it right now: They can write a bill. … If it is so sacred to them and so important to them, we have a process where one body introduces and passes, a second one either amends it or passes it and I sign it, and then that’s the rule, the statute and the rule.” But not every detail of carrying out a law warrants that, he noted.
“Some of the places where the rulemaking process works really well is where these things are really complicated,” Little said, adding that he’d “vent a little bit: When they pass laws in the amending order, and there’s no hearings, and it’s almost always the end of the session — compare that to the negotiated rulemaking session, where we notice it up, the public gets access to it. I think they want to be careful what they’re asking for.”
ON RENOVATING THE CAPITOL FOR NEW HOUSE OFFICES
The House pushed legislation this year to spend up to $10 million to renovate the Capitol to provide private offices for House members, booting out the offices of the state treasurer in the process; the Senate, whose members already have private offices, killed the bill twice.
“It was inferred in a lot of the things that took place when we remodeled the Capitol,” Little said, referring to the 2007-2009 remodel that added underground wings, large hearing rooms and office space as well as historic restoration. “And it is unfortunate we waited this long, because it’s a lot more expensive now. When Joe Stegner and Butch Otter and Jeff Malmen negotiated one floor instead of two floors in the wings, that was the genesis of it.”
As part of that, he noted, the executive branch “gave away a lot of their control. Part of it was the fourth floor. The executive branch gave that away in that negotiation. So I have a little bit different view of it than the House does.”
“I think they probably ought to have better office space,” he said. “How they get that done, that’s, like I said, I’ve got one floor that I have jurisdiction over, which is fine. I’ve tried to stay out of it.”