Closed meeting on state employee pay draws protest, rebuke

From The Spokesman-Review

By Betsy Z. Russell
The Spokesman-Review
Nov. 29, 2005

BOISE – A legislative interim committee’s decision to send its members behind closed doors to debate details of new state employee pay legislation prompted protests and a rebuke from the speaker of the Idaho House.

The panel, a joint committee charged with improving Idaho’s compensation policies for state employees, was debating legislation to change the state pay system when Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, called for a break to go into “caucus,” so the majority Republicans could agree on provisions of the bill behind closed doors. Sen. Bert Marley, D-McCammon, said minority Democrats also wanted to caucus, though Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, noted that Democratic caucuses are open to the public.

Rep. Jana Kemp, R-Boise, objected. “I believe that the issue of employee pay is a non-partisan issue, and as such, I would propose that we conduct all business here in the interim committee,” she declared. But she was outvoted, 11-1.

Kemp then sat silently in her seat in protest as the other lawmakers left for their respective party caucuses. “I did what I could,” she said. “Notice where I’m sitting.”

Several hours later, House Speaker Bruce Newcomb issued a stern statement to the committee saying closed-door caucuses are not appropriate for joint committees, and amount to closed subcommittee meetings.

“I would like to make it clear as speaker of the House, that our policy is that no committee, standing or interim, have a session in which a subcommittee meets behind closed doors,” Newcomb wrote. “…On the House side, our policy is to avoid closed-door meetings of subcommittees and/or regular committees unless it is to gain legal counsel.”

The Legislature is being sued by the Idaho Press Club for holding more than half a dozen closed meetings of official committees in recent years. The case goes before the Idaho Supreme Court for arguments on Jan. 9.

Newcomb concluded his written statement, “When someone in a joint committee wants to have a closed-door meeting to discuss issues before the committee, I would instruct House members not to participate. The word ‘caucus’ is an inappropriate term for a joint committee.”

From The Spokesman-Review

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