UPDATED, 4:50 p.m., with comments from Denney.
In May, North Idaho Republican voters elected to fire tax-dodging state Rep. Phil Hart.
Nonetheless, House Speaker Lawerence Denney has elected to send the lame-duck Hart to a national legislative conference — on your nickel.
No, it doesn’t make a bit of sense to me either.
Yet this week, Hart is one of five Idaho legislators attending an American Legislative Exchange Council conference in Salt Lake City. Denney specifically approved sending Hart, R-Hayden, and another of the House’s loyal conservative foot soldiers, Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens.
Spending taxpayer money to send any lawmaker to an ALEC conference is questionable enough. It would be naive to consider this an educational conference or a fact-finding mission, given ALEC’s politics and objectives. The group exists to advance a Wal-Mart approach to state public policy, offering up template legislation on pet topics such as privatizing K-12 education and fighting the federal health care law.
So I’ll give credit to Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, ALEC’s Idaho state chairperson. She’s in Salt Lake City this week, paying her own way. Best practices at work.
As a taxpayer, I'm not thrilled about picking up Barbieri's tab, but at least he won his primary. Should he prevail in the November general election, he’ll be back in the Statehouse in 2013 — for good or ill. That means he’d be positioned to act on ALEC’s marching orders — again, for good or ill. I don't think this is a wise use of taxpayer money, but I can at least understand the argument for the expenditure.
But Hart? While technically still a member of the Legislature, he is essentially running out the clock until new lawmakers take office in December. Barring a special session, which is unlikely, the Legislature isn’t going to reconvene until January. So what good does it serve to send Hart on a taxpayer-funded going-away trip?
Denney says there is value in having even outgoing lawmakers hear about pending issues — and says he tries to be fair about travel. He approves one trip per year for each member of his caucus. “I really don’t look at whether they’re retired or not,” he said Wednesday. Denney said he wasn’t sure, but he believed Hart requested the trip to the ALEC conference after his May 15 GOP primary loss.
Admittedly, Hart makes an easy target for commentators — even an easier one than the power-grabbing yet gaffe-prone Denney. (Note to the speaker: If taxpayer-funded road trips are an instrument to shore up support for future House leadership elections, it’s probably a smart move to dole out the goods to colleague who’ll still be in office to vote for you.)
But this isn’t an isolated occurrence.
When the Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Economic Region assembled state and Canadian provincial legislators in Saskatchewan earlier this month, retiring Rep. Max Black, R-Boise, was one of the Idaho lawmakers dispatched on leadership’s behalf. Retiring Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, the longtime chairman of the House Resources and Conservation Committee, also made the trip and was a conference speaker. Both are eligible for reimbursement from the state, Denney said.
So where should the state draw the line? It seems clear to me. Don’t spend taxpayer money covering travel bills for lame-duck legislators — whether they are retiring of their own accord, or whether they’ve been retired by the voters back home. If these conferences have legitimate educational value, send legislators who are apt to be in office for at least another two-year term.
This is, I presume, the way most private employers spend their limited training/professional development budgets. They look to build up their bench and their institutional knowledge, by investing in the next round of up-and-comers.
But there I go again, expecting the Legislature to live by its beloved “Let’s-run-government-like-a-business” mantra.