CHUCK MALLOY: It’s honeymoon time; bring on the ‘happy’ dances

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I’ve seen some political honeymoons over the years, and this one with Gov. Brad Little is among the better ones.

Democrats typically use their first news conference of the legislative session to complain about all the things that the governor and fellow Republicans are doing wrong. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum went the other way, talking about doing a “happy dance” after the new governor’s State of the State message.

Keep in mind that Democrats, whether in Idaho or Washington, don’t do “happy dances” over anything Republicans say or do — unless it’s a Republican handing Nancy Pelosi the House speaker’s gavel.

There was foundation for Stennett’s joy. “Really, much of what he said is something that as Democrats we have been talking about and trying to pass for 10 years — at least as long as I’ve been here. Education, the highlights of his speech, are things that we have been working very hard toward.”

Said House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding of Boise: “We welcome Gov. Little and his new administration and look forward to finding bipartisan solutions to our state’s challenges. Our core values of ensuring the security of our families, providing quality educational opportunities to our children, and protecting our quality of life provide a guide that will help us work with the new administration to benefit all Idahoans.”

The Democratic leaders submitted a joint commentary the next day that offered some words of caution along with general praise.

“He talked about issues like full-day kindergarten, enhancing Idaho’s economy and bringing down healthcare costs,” they wrote. “For the first time in a generation, we have an Idaho governor who is espousing Democratic values. The question is whether this is merely talk, or a real turning point in Idaho’s trajectory.”

Actually, the tone of Little’s address was not far different from what Gov. Butch Otter has been saying in the post-recession years. Otter especially was aggressive in promoting improvements to education, which Democrats generally liked. But after 12 years, there was a different voice attached to those words — and it went over well in the statehouse.

During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, I had the feeling that most Democrats in the Legislature — who distanced themselves from Paulette Jordan — preferred Little for the sake of effective governing. The governor’s State of the State address was evidence that Little, a centrist Republican, is on the same page with Democrats on quite a few of the big-picture fronts.

As a matter of fact, Otter was not entirely off the rails with Democrats. As one leading Democrat told me, “He would tell us that Democrats were not his problem.” Otter’s biggest headaches came from within the Republican Party, and especially those wanting to reduce state government to ashes.

Stennett and Erpelding point out, without citing clear examples, that Little “retains some of the weaknesses of his predecessors. He remains elusive on the No. 1 issue facing Idahoans in 2019 and beyond — Medicaid expansion.”

OK, I guess Democrats are obligated to be skeptical about something. But Lauren Necochen, director of Idaho Voices for Children, is optimistic about the prospects of Medicaid expansion — and ending that embarrassing six-year crisis regarding health coverage for Idaho’s working poor.

“We applaud the governor for his commitment to implementing the will of the voters and we encourage the Legislature to do it the Idaho way, with the lightest possible touch and minimum bureaucracy,” she said.

From the conservative end of the spectrum, the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Wayne Hoffman — who has never been bashful about butting heads with Little and Otter over the years — praised the new governor for his calls for “aggressive regulatory reform and eventual repeal of Idaho’s grocery tax.”

Hoffman is no fan of Little’s proposed 5 percent increase in overall spending. But he gives props to Little for wanting to trim nearly $120 million from agency discretionary requests and more than $16 million from agency replacement items. Hoffman also likes the governor’s idea of directing state agencies to cut two regulations for each one they propose to add.

All in all, it’s a nice start for Little, and the feel-good atmosphere is a pleasant contrast from the never-ending train wreck that is happening in Washington. About all that’s missing from this political honeymoon are travel brochures for places such as Hawaii, Niagara Falls and the Bahamas.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a Silver Valley native and longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.

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