Pressure builds on Idaho legislators to keep committee meetings open

From The Associated Press

Associated Press Writer
Dec. 1, 2005

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – A statewide organization of Idaho citizens is overwhelmingly opposed to lawmakers having carte blanche to close legislative committee hearings, putting more pressure on legislative leaders to craft new rules and end a prolonged court battle over the current closed-door option.

Common Interest is a grass roots organization launched a year ago by a bipartisan group of former Idaho legislators in an effort to give average citizens a voice in the political process.

The 700 members are asked before each legislative session to vote on their top lobbying priorities.

“Our members, and Idahoans in general, consider it a violation of the fundamental principle of democracy that people should be excluded when their business is being discussed,” said Keith Allred, president of the Eagle-based group.

Allred said Common Interest would lobby the Legislature in the 2006 session for a limited closure rule that would allow meeting closures for pending litigation, employee discipline and security matters.

The Idaho Press Club sued the Legislature in 2003 for closing meetings of official committees, arguing that the state Constitution requires all business of the lawmaking body to be conducted “openly, and not in secret session.” A 4th District judge has twice ruled that the framers of the Constitution intended only the general sessions of the House and Senate to be always open, not the committee hearings.

The Press Club has appealed and oral arguments are scheduled Jan. 9 before the Idaho Supreme Court.

Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming are the only western states that allow legislative committees to use any reason to close hearings. Montana, Oregon and Washington require legislative committee hearings to always be open, while Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah allow committees to close hearings in specified extraordinary circumstances.

Between 1990 and 2003, legislative analysts said, only one of thousands of committee hearings was closed. Tension between lawmakers and the media rose in 2003, when six committee meetings were closed. Additional meetings were closed in 2004 as lawmakers negotiated a landmark water rights settlement with the Nez Perce Tribe.

No meetings were closed in the 2005 session, but the Senate voted in February for rule changes allowing committees to close hearings for any reason as long as two-thirds of their members voted in support.

The issue flared up Monday, when Republican members of a joint legislative study committee on state worker salaries voted to go into closed session. That prompted House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, to issue an admonition that secret caucuses were not appropriate for joint committees.

“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. He could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, sponsor of the February measure to allow closure with two-thirds support, said Republicans and Democrats had previously agreed on a limited closure rule until Democrats “starting getting political pressure on the editorial pages” and sided with the Press Club in the current litigation.

“I just didn’t feel like there was the commitment from that point,” Davis said Wednesday. “I was willing to do it then, I’m willing to do it now, but I just don’t know where the other side stands on it.”

Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, said his caucus prefers to wait for the Supreme Court ruling since his Democrats want to “err on the side of more openness rather than less.” He also scoffed at GOP entreaties to join with Democrats in crafting a new rule when Republicans control 80 percent of the Idaho Legislature.

“Since when did Bart need my votes to do anything?” Stennett said Wednesday. “If they want to pass that rule, they have the votes to do so anytime they want to. We’ll wait to see what the Supreme Court says.”


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