Years ago, while writing for the Post Register in Idaho Falls, I discovered a sure way of getting the attention of Idaho legislators. I conducted a survey to determine the best and worst in the Idaho Legislature and published the results before the session.
There was more buzz surrounding that “fake news” survey than the governor’s State of the State message — with a few people liking it, but most hating every sentence of it. Mike Simpson, who at that time was a dentist from Blackfoot and state representative, would have gladly provided me with free dental surgery … on the House floor.
But the survey, at least, caught everybody’s attention.
Wayne Hoffman, who heads the Idaho Freedom Foundation, gets the same kind of attention with his annual “Freedom Index,” a chart aimed at showing who are the “real conservatives” in the Legislature. Over the years, this Freedom Index has been praised by some, scorned by others and laughed at by those who dismiss the IFF as a bunch of right-wing kooks who cater to a constituency of “banjo pickers,” as one former legislator described.
But most of the laughing has stopped. The Freedom Index, along with a crop of self-proclaimed “liberty” legislators, are turning the Legislature more to the right. And they are just getting warmed up, with some 40 “liberty” candidates waiting to fill the seats. The “liberty” legislators of today make Lawerence Denney, the former House speaker and now secretary of state, look like a RINO by comparison.
The shift to the right will have more momentum if Congressman Raul Labrador or Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist win the governor’s race, and less so if Lt. Gov. Brad Little is elected. But neither Hoffman, nor the conservative movement, will go away regardless of who becomes governor.
Two years ago, the Freedom Index was something that only the likes of Reps. Heather Scott of Blanchard and Ron Nate of Rexburg could love. They received the highest IFF ratings then, and they still are at the top of the list. But they have more company today, with 15 other legislators receiving “A” grades (90 percent or higher).
Two years ago, many of the leading Republicans received failing grades from the Freedom Index. Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, for one, was put in the same category of the most liberal Democrats. In the most recent survey, not a single Republican received a failing grade. So, maybe legislators are paying more attention to this scorecard. In any event, Hoffman described this year as “a great legislative session” for liberty.
“Perhaps because it’s an election year, perhaps because lawmakers are finally getting the message, perhaps because Gov. Butch Otter is a lame duck,” Hoffman says. “I’ve been doing this work for more than two decades and I’ve never seen an Idaho legislative session more disposed toward limited government than (this one).” Two years ago, he was wondering if his conservative think tank was doing business in Idaho, or Massachusetts.
Hoffman cites a list of accomplishments, which includes passing “meaningful” tax relief, making it easier for Idahoans to buy and sell health insurance across state lines and reducing restrictions on cosmetologists.
“The fact is, Idahoans have long wanted a legislative session like the one we just had. And this … is just the beginning,” Hoffman says. “Should Idahoans elect a governor who actually believes in free markets and limited government — and doesn’t just give lip service to them — and should Idahoans add to the growing ranks of conservative legislators this year, 2019 could prove even better.”
Hoffman is exactly right. Political power starts in the voting booths. The conservative agenda pushed by Hoffman and “liberty” legislators will flourish, or die, depending on what happens in this year’s elections.
Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org