Pressure rises in Idaho health exchange clash; highlights gaps in state’s Sunshine laws

From the Idaho Statesman

Ahead of Wednesday’s House vote, tea party and GOP groups have been fighting the business establishment.

By DAN POPKEY — dpopkey@idahostatesman.com

Using direct mail, radio spots and computer-generated phone calls, opponents of Gov. Butch Otter’s health insurance exchange bill are waging a campaign to try to reverse the momentum after last month’s 23-12 Senate vote.

Their efforts are dwarfed by dozens of lobbyists backing the exchange, led by the insurance and health care industries and broad-based business groups.

But the appeal to conservative Republican voters who will decide the 2014 legislative primaries has captured the attention of lawmakers.

“They’re saying we’re bought and paid for by the insurance companies,” said House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, a target of a tea party mailer last week.

Wood, a physician, is the floor sponsor of House Bill 248, which is scheduled for debate Wednesday.

The heart of the opposition strategy is coupling hostility to the Affordable Care Act with Otter’s decision to cooperate with the federal government and operate the online insurance marketplace in Idaho, rather than leave the job to the feds.

“Idaho’s version of Obamacare is now before the Idaho Legislature, and it’s bad,” says a voice in a robocall that lets recipients automatically connect to lawmakers’ phone lines. “You can help stop it by telling your legislator to vote no on HB 248.”

Though the calls lack the legally required disclosure of the message’s sponsor, they came from Gem State Tea Party, said the group’s Boise president, Chad Inman. He founded the Gem State Tea Party last year, uniting 13 groups statewide. He said calls were made to all 35 legislative districts.

GOP LEADERS INVOLVED

Inman’s ally is the Idaho Business Alliance, founded in January by conservative Boise businessman and GOP funder George Gersema, Bonneville County Republican Chairman Doyle Beck and former GOP redistricting commissioner Lorna Finman of Post Falls.

Another former redistricting commissioner, political consultant Lou Esposito of Star, is helping with direct mail and radio.

“Too many in Boise say we have no choice but to submit to the economic destruction built into the very structure of Obamacare,” reads a Business Alliance postcard urging citizens to call lawmakers.

Last week, a mailer from Gem State Tea Party went to 4,000 recipients in the Magic Valley legislative district represented by three prominent Otter allies: Wood, R-Burley; House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.

The postcard indicates that the trio “are leading the effort over in Boise to impose Obamacare on the people of Idaho.” Pictured are piles of cash behind a “Show Us the Money” headline, along with an accounting of health, insurance and medical industry campaign contributions to the lawmakers.

“The garden path to Obamacare has been laid by tens of thousands of dollars to Idaho politicians over the past several years,” according to the mailer.

Cameron, an insurance agent, objects, noting that Otter and the GOP-controlled Legislature heartily backed the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. “We’ve been opposed to it all along,” said Cameron. “But we lost in court and we lost the presidential election.”

Exchange proponents – including Blue Cross, Idaho Hospital Association, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, and local chambers of commerce – say Idaho is better off running its own exchange, even under federal rules.

Beck, an Idaho Falls businessman, distrusts the powerful economic interests arrayed behind the exchange, asking, “Have you ever known anything favorable to the insurance industry that was also good for you and me?”

Cameron was among a group of GOP incumbents unsuccessfully targeted for defeat in 2012 by political action committees run by consultant Esposito. Cameron said the new campaign doesn’t prompt him to shy from the issue, though it might signal another serious primary challenge next year.

“If anything, it cements our resolve,” Cameron said. “We firmly believe the governor made the right decision and we’re standing behind him.”

GAPS IN SUNSHINE LAW

Campaign and lobbying spending by exchange proponents are disclosed under Idaho law. But spending by Gem State Tea Party and the Business Alliance can’t yet be quantified.

“They know what they’re doing,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.

Tea Party Boise has a lobbyist, but he is unpaid, exempting the group from disclosure. Gersema told Ysursa’s office that the Business Alliance has no paid lobbyists and the group is funding the mailings itself, exempting it from monthly lobbying reports.

Esposito will have to report his PAC spending, but not until annual reports for 2013 are due on Jan. 31, 2014.

“No, I’m not disclosing a dime,” said Inman. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Said Esposito: “The amount of money we have spent on postcards and radio ads is a spit in the ocean compared to the money spent by Blue Cross, IACI, IHA and others on lobbyists, legislators and their media campaigns. When you factor in the complicity of a nonobjective news media, our efforts pale in comparison.”

Ysursa said he’s exploring possible amendments to the Sunshine Law in 2014. “What’s being done is lobbying; it’s pertaining to legislation, it doesn’t pertain to candidates,” he said.

Speaker Bedke said he’s also interested in tightening the law. “I am not comfortable with the large gaps of time in the reporting schedule. I think the public has a right to know,” he said.

Bedke remains optimistic that HB 248 will pass.

“With very few exceptions, they’ll vote their conscience, regardless of the pressure,” he said. “I haven’t seen a lot of legislators knuckle under.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

From the Idaho Statesman

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