Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Power reveals

We are heading into uncharted waters. The outcome of the November 2022 election has ushered in a new power structure within the Idaho Legislature – and with it, people who want to radically change state law and how the legislature operates.  

I will stand up to extremism, but I am also committed to building cooperative working relationships with my colleagues across the aisle – even if we disagree on other topics.
My focus is on the issues that have a real, profound impact on people’s daily lives. We need to plan for the challenging realities of the future, not pine for a mythical version of the past. Idaho's needs as one of the fastest growing state in America demands serious critical thinking, not inflammatory rhetoric.
As always, please feel free to contact me anytime for any reason. My contact information appears at the end of this newsletter.


Idaho's three-party system

I’ve been knocking on doors for more than 12 years, asking voters a very simple question: “What do you want me to get done, fix, or change for the better here in Idaho?” The response has consistently been the things that affect each person’s daily life – issues such as education, cost of living, affordable housing, infrastructure, healthcare, property taxes, and so on.
But this year voters told me something at the door that I’ve never heard before – ever. It was one form or another of “stop the crazy.” People are concerned about increased extremism in the Idaho Legislature and the coarsening of the public discourse: a fear-mongering alphabet soup of acronyms (CRT, SEL, DEI, ESG, etc.), witch hunt task forces, and punitive laws that threatened financial harm to institutions and imprisonment of ordinary citizens.  

The results of the 2022 November election appears to have revealed a schism within the majority party: long-time traditional Republicans versus those who advocate an extreme and uncompromising definition of what it means to be a true “conservative.”
This in itself isn’t new; each political party has members with strong and differing opinions on a variety of issues. What is new, however, is how one faction has begun to aggressively – and publicly – attack the other. Life-long Republicans are now repeatedly called RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) – and sometimes even called “Democrats.” 
Several of the more extreme members who openly supported Ammon Bundy over Brad Little, now occupy key leadership positions throughout the majority party’s infrastructure. They wrote a party platform which includes absurdities such as replacing paper currency with gold and silver metal, as well as taking away your right to vote for your U.S. senator and giving it to themselves in the state legislature (repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).
Perhaps the most visible sign of this schism is pressuring candidates to sign a loyalty oath to this new party platform (called “Integrity in Affiliation”), which states: “I support the Idaho Republican Platform and accept it as the standard by which my performance as a candidate and as an officeholder should be evaluated.”  

On January 9th, the new Chair of the Idaho Republican Party told Republican legislators that if they didn’t back legislation supporting the party’s platform and resolutions, they will be denied access to the party’s infrastructure and resources; threatening that they’d be “on their own.” 

This draconian “my way or the highway” attitude is kicking many loyal, life-long Idaho Republicans to the side of the road. They are being ostracized and rejected by a party they thought they knew but is now rapidly changing beneath their feet.
I believe in our republican form of government. My job as a legislator is to represent my constituents, not party bosses or a party platform written in a back room by political insiders. I do that by listening to people and respecting a broad range of opinions, even when we may have differing perspectives. It is not my job to tell people what they can or can’t be, do, or think.
The shifting political landscape
There are technically only two political parties in the legislature (Republicans and Democrats). To determine how the political landscape has shifted, one must use proxies such as “score cards” published by outside organizations that demand ideological purity, endorsements by extremists, and what individual legislators have actually said and done.
Taking these factors into consideration, Idaho now has a virtual three-party system. The floor maps below illustrate what the composition of today’s Idaho Legislature may look like: Democrats (blue), Traditional Republicans (red), and extremists (yellow). 

Note: This is a subjective assessment. The political positions within each of the three “parties” are not monolithic nor absolute. A more accurate picture will emerge as the 2023 session unfolds – for better or worse.
In fact, some of these extremists have formally and publicly affiliated themselves with the “Freedom Caucus” in Washington (which includes people such as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz). Others are leading the effort within the legislature to turn the 2022 Idaho Republican Party platform and resolutions into laws that will rule over the lives of every citizen in the state.

Power reveals
Robert Caro is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and perhaps America’s premier biographer alive today. He has written about people who wielded tremendous power and influence in the public sector – how they obtained it and how they used it to further their personal ambitions and desires.
We are all familiar with the expression, “Power corrupts.”  Caro has a different perspective on this, having studied people in positions of power for over half a century:
“But although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said ... is that power always reveals. When a person is climbing, trying to persuade others to give them power, concealment is necessary. ... But as a person obtains more power, camouflage becomes less necessary.”
We will soon get to see how true Caro’s observation is as today’s major party takes control and reveals itself during the legislative session.



Rotunda Roundup

Not much has happened legislatively during this first week of the 2023 legislative session.  However, storm clouds are already gathering on the horizon. We have begun to see signs of what power in the hands of a new legislature is revealing.
The Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) is the most powerful legislative committee. It writes the appropriation bills that fund state government, which is the only responsibility the legislature is constitutionally required to do. JFAC has 20 members – 10 Senators and 10 Representatives. Currently it takes a simple majority of 11 to pass an appropriations bill out of JFAC. However, majority party leadership is considering changing the rules which will empower only five committee members to kill an appropriations bill and prevent it from advancing to the House and Senate (click here for more).  This runs the risk of torpedoing the governor’s agenda he outlined in his State of the State address, especially in regard to increased funding for education.

Last year there was a voucher bill (called the Hope and Opportunity Scholarship bill) that would have obligated the state to give approximately $1.2 BILLION of taxpayer dollars (at full participation) to parents which could be used to pay tuition for any for-profit religious or private school. It was narrowly defeated in the House Education committee by a 7-8 vote.
Now there is a universal voucher bill in the works would make all Idaho students eligible. This would require the state to give nearly $2 BILLION of taxpayer dollars (at full participation) to parents which could be used to pay tuition for any for-profit religious or private school. That will be the end of public education in Idaho – which is the publicly stated goal of organizations working with the legislators who are writing this bill.
You’d think that with the Idaho Supreme Court upholding the state’s near-complete ban on abortions that the majority party would declare victory and move on.  Not so.  There is now a bill in the works that would take money away from any Idaho city if they do not adhere to the majority party’s orthodoxy on this issue. This would increase local property taxes and fees to cover the withheld funds in order to deliver vital services people need and expect. It seems there is no limit to the legislature's desire to punish the living in their zeal to protect the unborn.
There are indications that an effort might be made to roll back certain healthcare benefits that Idahoans currently have due to Medicaid Expansion – even as the state currently enjoys a $1.5 BILLION surplus. The Medicaid Expansion ballot initiative passed in 2018 because illness knows no partisanship. The legislature would be wise to consider the benefits this has provided, not just the increased costs commensurate with being one of the fastest growing state in the nation.


In the hopper

This will start filling up as bills start moving through committees, probably closer to the end of January.