North Idaho, the state’s forgotten stepchild, is on the cusp of getting a slice of political power in the state. Finally!
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, is in line to become a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, with Sen. Dean Cameron – the longtime JFAC co-chair – getting an almost-certain appointment as director for the Department of Insurance. No, this won’t mean that the state will get that north-south super highway that folks to the north have been talking about for decades. But it does mean that Keough would provide North Idaho strong representation on the Legislature’s most powerful committee.
To me, an old North Idaho boy (and I do mean “old”), Keough’s appointment would have meaning to a geographic area that has such little political clout. All of Idaho’s congressional delegation, and state office holders, are from the south. When former Sen. John Goedde of Coeur d’Alene was voted out of office last year, the Senate was left without a chairman from the north. The only chairman on the House side is Vito Barbieri of Dalton Gardens, who heads the Business Committee. House Minority Leader John Rusche is from Lewiston, but Democrats are hardly power brokers in the Legislature.
How bad is it in North Idaho? It’s so bad (this is not a joke line) that the redistricting committee didn’t know what to do with Shoshone and Bonner counties. So they were put in with Idaho and Clearwater counties. On second thought … that is a joke.
Keough’s elevation to the chairmanship wouldn’t change that sorry situation. But it would accomplish a couple of significant “firsts” for the state.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a legislator from North Idaho serving as a co-chair of JFAC – at least not in my memory,” said Cameron, who has been around a long time (13 terms). “And I don’t think there ever have been two women serving as co-chairs.”
Her appointment to the chairmanship is not a sure thing, according to Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill of Rexburg. He’ll announce his choice closer to the 2016 sessions. But Hill acknowledges there are positive signs in her direction. Cameron, Keough’s longtime mentor, offers a strong recommendation, as does the co-chair from the House, Rep. Maxine Bell of Jerome.
“The co-chair would be comfortable with Shawn, and that’s important to me,” Hill said.
Both Cameron and Bell have made it a point to involve vice chairs in the work behind the scenes. Keough chairs the Economic Outlook Committee, which projects revenue.
“When Dean and I were vice chairmen, we were not part of the team,” Bell said. “When we became chairmen, we decided that the vice chairmen would be part of the team. Seldom do we have a meeting without the four of us. Shawn knows how to do the budgets and she knows the issues.
Keough says her involvement as vice chair has prepared her for the co-chair’s position. “I would be honored if the pro tem saw fit to have me step into the chairmanship,” she said.
Although North Idaho is her home, her responsibilities go beyond territorial interests. “The budget is a state responsibility, and our duty is to pass a budget that meets the expectations of the people who pay taxes.”
Keough, who has a congenial nature, is not a push-over. She once served on the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee, which gave her plenty of practice saying “no” to worthwhile causes. And she has had to say “no” many times on the budget committee. “There’s never enough money to cover everything, even in the good years,” she said.
Keough certainly is tough enough to take the criticisms that go along with the territory. Cameron says he’s been called a big-spending liberal and hardline conservative, “sometimes in the same day.” Keough will hear the same kind of talk.
“But to call her anything but a conservative would be a mistake,” Hill said. “We have a conservative Legislature, and particularly on financial matters.”
Although Hill wants to leave his options open on the chairmanship, he has all the talking points in line for appointing Keough. Bell offers a few more, for good measure.
“I’ll miss Dean like crazy as a person and a friend, but we won’t miss a beat on the budget,” Bell said. “It would not be a difficult transition for her, or me. All she would have to do is move over one seat and take the gavel every other meeting.”