In a state legislature of 105 people, the shift or departure of only a few key people can make a big difference. And with a couple of recent announcements, the Idaho Legislature may change in the next couple of years more than it has in upwards of a decade.
The majority leadership of the Senate and House of Representatives has been remarkably stable – static? – for a long time; the players hardly ever change. In this millennium, the Senate has had but two top leaders (pro tems) – longevity unprecedented in the Idaho Senate’s history. The position of Senate majority leader has been even more stable: Since 2003, that job has been held by Idaho Falls Senator Bart Davis. Next session, assuming his (highly likely) confirmation by the U.S. Senate, he will leave to become Idaho’s U.S. attorney.
That means a shift in Senate leadership, and depending on how that goes the majority caucus could wind up sounding more ideological than it has. Davis has been a cooler personality, and has been something of a cooling factor in the Senate. With his departure, that governor may be gone, or at least be diminished.
Last week came another major change in a legislative long-timer when Senator Shawn Keough of Sandpoint announced her legislative retirement. She is co-chair of the legislature’s budget-writing panel (the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee), and while she’s relatively new to the chairmanship, she was co-chair for a long time before. (Keough is in her 11th term in the Senate.) With the prospective retirement next year as well of the veteran House co-chair, Maxine Bell of Jerome, the budget committee will see some significant leadership shifts in the 2019 session.
The budget panel long has been a place for the ideological and the pragmatic to do battle – there’s never a place better to do that than on a field of money. For years, and for most of its history, JFAC has been run primarily by pragmatists. (Dean Cameron, now the state director of the Department of Insurance, was for many years Keough’s predecessor at Senate Finance.) But while the chairmanship of JFAC usually goes to the next most senior member, you can never be entirely sure of that.
And chairmanships, like other committee memberships, are determined by the Senate and House leaders. The departure of Davis in the Senate could unleash some pent-up agitation and frustration, and the possibility of serious leadership contests after the next election, of a sort more intense than the Statehouse has seen in quite a few years, is a live possibility.
And there’s one more change coming around the bend: A new Idaho governor, after a dozen years.
Probably a Brad Little governorship would not in itself lead to drastic changes at the Legislature. However, a win by U.S. Representative Raul Labrador (himself a former Idaho House member) or businessman Tommy Ahlquist could have all kinds of impacts. If one of them wins the Republican nomination many Republicans, including many legislative Republicans, are likely to read that as an overturning of the GOP establishment. And that in turn could accelerate leadership challenges and contests unlike any Idaho has seen for a while.
Things are shaking up.