Leave it to Dean Ferguson, communications director for the Idaho Democratic Party, to make election losses appear to be the Chinese “Year of the Donkey.”
As he sees it, the more “serious” Republicans recognize their party has “lost considerable credibility on the economy, jobs and education,” and that the results of the last election “are actually signs of growth and the insiders for the Rs know it.”
Insiders also know that rural areas are where elections are won and lost, and there’s no ground swell in the hinterlands to vote anything but Republican. Democrats might make modest gains here and there, but Idahoans still are a long way off from winning a governor’s race, state office or congressional seat.
But Ferguson, a former political reporter with the Lewiston Tribune, has foundation for his viewpoint. Here are two prime examples:
- Education funding is a top priority for Gov. Butch Otter and Republican legislative leaders. Democrats have been talking about this for years, while Republicans responded to the recession by yanking away dollars from public schools.
- Leading Republicans recognize that crumbling roads and falling bridges are not the keys to economic stability. The GOP, which turned down a 2-cent gas tax increase six years ago, are now friendly to raising revenue for infrastructure. Lawmakers even are kicking around the idea of raising the sales tax by a penny – a notion that was unheard of up to this year. Again, Democrats have been talking about this issue for some time.
“Our differences in the past are now part of the whole agenda of the Statehouse,” says Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum. “If bridges are shutting down, you’re going to reroute an entire transportation system that impacts our viability economically.”
Her quote is almost identical to sentiments expressed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Palmer of Meridian, one of the most conservative Republicans in the statehouse.
House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston says Republicans have come to the realization that it takes money to pay for services. “You don’t hear Grover Norquist quoted,” Rusche said.
There are other areas of common ground between Republicans and Democrats, starting with the state-based health exchange two years ago in which the Democrats played a pivotal role. There appears to be some bipartisan agreement on saving broadband connections for schools, although details need to be worked out.
Republicans have shown movement on a leading civil rights issue, “Add the Words,” which bars discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” The legislation was turned down by the House State Affairs Committee on a party-line vote. But the fact that there was a full hearing was a big sign of progress for Democrats, the champions of the initiative.
Rusche sees a positive change in his relationship with the top Republican leaders, especially House Speaker Scott Bedke. Democrats are not part of the high-level discussions, but Rusche says his relationship with Bedke is more cordial than when Lawerence Denney (who is now secretary of state) was the House speaker.
Stennett says her relationship with Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill of Rexburg and other top GOP leaders has been consistent and positive over the years. She just wishes that the Legislature would turn words into action.
“This has been a bit disjointed,” she said. “There are a lot of ambitious ideas in education and transportation, but nothing percolating to the top.” The data is clear on most of the funding options for transportation. All that’s missing is the will to take action.
“The House speaker is saying he will not move forward without a consensus. That leaves us, as Democrats, saying, ‘we could be players if you’d talk to us.’”
The biggest disappoint for Democrats is the GOP’s refusal to take up Medicaid expansion and health insurance issues in general.
Rusche says the lack of action reflects fear within the GOP. “It’s a leadership issue.”
Stennett says it’s more of a humanity issue – the failure to accept federal money that could help provide a basic need for uninsured Idahoans. “It’s not that we don’t have the money. It’s that we have chosen for political and philosophical reasons not to take a program that could benefit a lot of people.”
Democrats can’t have everything with their small numbers in the Legislature. But as the tone of the session suggests, the Democrats’ views are closer to mainstream than left field.