I gather from the phone calls and emails I’m getting that people don’t realize what a monumentally successful night conservatives had in Idaho’s primary election on Tuesday. This one was one for the record books, and it could help usher in a new chapter in Idaho’s political history.
The Idaho Senate, commonly known for the last several years as “the place where conservative legislation goes to die,” will thankfully be a very different place in 2023. As many as a dozen conservative legislators will take their seats in the 35-member chamber following the results of the May Republican Primary. A couple more conservatives could be added depending on the outcome of the November general election. This is a significant development, given that this year, conservatives enjoyed the consistent support of only two members, both of whom are retiring in December.
Having as many as a dozen rock solid conservatives in such a tiny chamber will mean that those conservatives will find themselves in position to quickly and effectively impact policy. Such an impact starts with the selection of Senate leadership. I suspect that Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, who once called the Idaho Freedom Foundation the “greatest threat to democracy” and made it a habit of blocking House-passed conservative legislation, will find his days in command of the Senate are numbered. Decisions about his future — and that of the rest of Senate leadership — will be made in December.
For now, it is clear that the Senate’s committees will swing to the right, not only because a number of Senate committee chairmen were defeated in Tuesday’s election, but also because now there’s enough conservative senators to create committees made up a majority bloc on the nine-member policy panels.
With leftists like Sen. Carl Crabtree and Sen. Jim Woodward defeated and out of the way, does this mean instead of a Senate Education Committee that blocks parental rights legislation and protects union interests, we could have a panel that finally embraces robust education choice policies? Very possible.
It’s equally possible that legislation to prevent mask and vaccine mandates would pass now that Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Fred Martin will be gone. Martin’s defeat and the defeat of leftist senators like Jeff Agenbroad, Crabtree, and Woodward, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee could lead lawmakers to finally restrain spending, starting with the bloated Medicaid budget.
This shift in the political makeup of the Senate will nicely complement the dynamic of the Idaho House of Representatives, which remains very conservative despite the loss of some top-notch legislators.
The media will of course fixate on Tuesday’s losses and claim victory. It’s easy to look at disappointing outcomes for conservatives running for Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state and conclude a long string of electoral successes for conservatives has come to an end. Coupled with the loss of such conservative luminaries as Ron Nate, Karey Hanks, Chad Christensen, and Greg Ferch, it’s easy to fabricate a story that the conservative movement reached its zenith in 2020.
The bigger picture proves something else. The losses in the House are offset by the election of other conservative candidates, almost one-to-one, meaning the net conservative composition of the House will be little changed. And the Senate will go from having two solid conservative senators to a dozen or more. For statewide offices, conservatives lost the lieutenant governor, who effectively has no real power, and they’ve picked up an attorney general, who has a lot of power and influence.
In short, the May 2022 primary elections will likely produce the most conservative governing this state has ever seen.
Sen. Carl Crabtree is now on record calling himself one of the most conservative members of the Idaho Senate and claiming that he follows the Idaho Freedom Foundation and our Freedom Index. While we appreciate the nod acknowledging that the Idaho Freedom Foundation represents conservative positions, we must point out that Senator Crabtree doesn’t have a consistently conservative voting record. He has moved left on policy bills over the course of his six legislative sessions, and he has always supported big spending.
Crabtree’s Freedom Index scores have shown a steady decline over the course of his six sessions. The Senate has lagged behind the House in Freedom Index Scores and has been on a downward trajectory. For his first four sessions, Crabree typically scored in the 80-90% range and for 2021 was 70.7% and last session was 60.6%. While his score is among the higher ones in the Senate, it certainly doesn’t reflect a conservartive voting record. For 2022, 19 House members scored 80% or higher, yet only two Senate members scored 80% or higher. The House has twice as many members as the Senate.
More concerning is Crabtree’s Spending Index score, which has ranged from 0-21% over the last four years. His spending votes generally are very aligned with the Senate’s Democrats. This is especially important because Crabtree has served on the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee since his first day in office.
When Crabtree started in the Legislature in 2017, Idaho’s all-funds budget appropriation was $7.9 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18). For FY23, the appropriations that Crabtree voted for total $12.9 billion. That’s a 63.3% increase in five years.
Medicaid serves as one of the big drivers of spending growth. Crabtree voted for the FY18 appropriation of $2.285 billion and for the FY23 appropriation of $4.045 billion, a 77% increase in five years and a staggering compounded annual increase of 12.1%. He voted for every Medicaid budget increase each year.
In 2021, Crabtree voted for Senate Bill 1204, the bill that accepted federal American Rescue Plan Act money. It says, “ARPA funds are borrowed from our grandchildren. To the extent allowable under law, the state should make long-range investments with ARPA funds that will benefit our grandchildren.”
Notwithstanding the language, Crabtree voted in the 2022 session to use ARPA funds for bonuses with SB1404 and for arts grants with SB1391. Borrowing money from our grandchildren to fund bonuses and arts projects hardly sounds like long-range investments. And it’s certainly not conservative.
In his remarks to an Adams County Lincoln Day dinner crowd, Crabtree stated that he believes that government should be run like a business, “If you don’t get it done, you don’t get the money.” I guess that Crabtree must believe this largesse is getting something done, because he has voted to dramatically grow state government in his time in the Legislature.
You may have heard recently that there’s a political action committee that has formed with the express purpose to “Take Back Idaho.” But what exactly are they taking it back from?
Allow me to tell you: They want to take Idaho back to a time when freedom wasn’t of importance to state lawmakers. They want to take you back to when special interests got their way with few questions asked.
The secret recipe for this con job is simple. Run as a Republican. Claim you’re conservative. Vote for some pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, and criticize the most leftist national Democrat you can find. Vote for bigger and bigger government at the expense of families, churches, and charities. Collect campaign donations from leftist organizations, companies, and political action committees. Get re-elected.
This has happened in Idaho for years without most constituents realizing they’d been had. To some degree, it’s still happening. But the jig is up, thanks to the research work done at the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
Our work challenges the special interests and the political system that has developed to protect them. With the Idaho Freedom Index in particular, our research arms lawmakers and the public with a conservative viewpoint, one different from the leftist control freaks and their puppet lawmakers.
That’s why it’s also not surprising to see former legislators and state elected officials, who themselves perpetuated the existence of the special interest cabal, rise up to be part of the effort to take the Legislature back to the good old days of corruption, misfeasance, and leftism.
We already know that former State Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones has outed himself as a lefty’s leftist over many angry columns in the newspaper. He’s the face of Take Back Idaho.
He’s joined by his pal, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a former Democrat who ran for state offices unsuccessfully until Jones convinced him in the 1980s to switch parties. Newcomb reportedly did so because he appreciated Republican interest in water rights issues that he didn’t get from the Democrats. It wasn’t because he awoke to conservatism one day, as his voting record in the Legislature would attest.
Newcomb would go on to preside over his share of tax increases and government expansion, but he’s probably best known today for having sponsored, along with Sen. Bob Geddes, a bill repealing Idaho’s term limits law 20 years ago. Geddes is also a part of Take Back Idaho, and he arguably was somewhat conservative until he rose to be the Senate’s top Republican. It’s from that position that Geddes defended the practice of senators serving for an entire legislative session -- or more -- without ever having to set foot in the building, an unelected substitute casting votes instead. He defended the pension spike, which let state legislators boost their pensions by joining the state bureaucracy, which is where Geddes went after exiting the Senate.
It so happens that Newcomb and Geddes were partly responsible for the Statehouse policy that required that all video recordings of House and Senate floor sessions be deleted five days after they were recorded, a policy that persisted until the IFF stopped it in 2013.
Ben Ysursa is another Take Back Idaho poster child for the left’s Statehouse clique. As secretary of state, he fought against closing Idaho’s primaries to protect the constitutional right of free association, and was annoyed when the IFF, in its early days, opposed Ysura’s handling of election integrity. We exposed and forced an end to Ysursa’s program of handing out taxpayer money to political parties.
There is no question Idaho’s Legislature, especially the House of Representatives, and state government in general, was more leftist when Jones, Newcomb, Geddes, and Ysursa were at the controls of state government. And this is the future that Take Back Idaho wants to take back Idaho to.
State Sen. Jeff Agenbroad’s recent attack in the Idaho Press Tribune on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s policy and appropriation bill reviews doesn’t reflect any change in our scores or tactics, but rather his problematic voting record.
And he doesn’t like our drawing attention to his voting record that demonstrates he is a big spender who has voted to grow state government dramatically.
Let’s share some facts about Agenbroad’s votes.
When Agenbroad started in the Legislature in 2017, Idaho’s all-funds budget appropriation was $7.9 billion for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18). For FY23, the appropriations that Agenbroad voted for total $12.9 billion. That is a 63.3% increase in 5 years.
He claims he isn’t a spendthrift, which would be credible if he voted against budget bills. But Agenbroad rarely votes against budget bills. He has served on the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee (JFAC) since his first day in office. JFAC developed the budgets that he voted for. So unless a 10.3% compounded annual spending increase for the last five years is fiscally conservative, it would seem that IFF’s criticism of Agenbroad’s voting record is on point.
One of the biggest drivers of the huge growth in spending has been the Medicaid budget. Agenbroad voted for the FY18 appropriation of $2.285 billion and for the FY23 appropriation of $4.045 billion, a 77% increase in five years and a staggering compounded annual increase of 12.1%. And he voted for every Medicaid budget increase each year.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Agenbroad says he detected a change in “IFF’s behavior” three years ago is because in 2019 we started our Spending Index as another measurement tool. Whereas the Freedom Index reviews bills regarding regulation and policy, the Spending Index only measures appropriation bills, a critical component of Agenbroad’s record as a member of JFAC that he now co-chairs.
For the 2019 session, Agenbroad’s Spending Index score of 7.1% tied for the lowest in the Senate. It improved slightly to 8.7% in 2020, putting him right next to Senate Democrat Minority Leader Michelle Stennett’s 8%. For 2021, Agenbroad tied for last again. And finally, the senator’s dismal 4.5% in 2022 put him ahead of only one Senate Democrat.
In short, he votes for nearly every budget no matter how large, including ones that any reasonable Republican might find objectionable like bloated Medicaid budgets or higher education budgets that fund social justice programs at Idaho colleges.
It's fair to say Agenbroad’s budget votes are indistinguishable from those cast by Senate Democrats.
This matters because Idaho could remove the sales tax on groceries and offer broad property tax relief with more restrained spending growth. We could go beyond slightly reducing the top income tax rate, which was the only major tax relief from the 2022 session.
In 2021, Agenbroad voted for Senate Bill 1204, the bill that accepted federal American Rescue Plan Act money. It says, “ARPA funds are borrowed from our grandchildren. To the extent allowable under law, the state should make long-range investments with ARPA funds that will benefit our grandchildren.”
Notwithstanding the language Agenbroad voted for with this bill, he voted in the 2022 session to use ARPA funds for bonuses with SB1404 and for arts grants with SB1391. Borrowing money from our grandchildren to fund bonuses and arts projects hardly sounds like long-range investments. And it’s certainly not conservative.
You see, until IFF started reviewing the records of legislators vote by vote, politicians like Agenbroad could make any claims they wanted because they defined themselves on the campaign trail as they saw fit.
Agenbroad believes IFF, in disclosing his voting record, is bullying him simply because he doesn’t want his constituents to know the details of the thousands of votes he has cast.
Unfortunately the votes are cast, his record is open for review, and he can no longer cover his tracks, thanks to the Idaho Freedom Foundation and its supporters.
Fred Birnbam serves as the Legislative Affairs Director for the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Budget bills referenced in his piece can be reviewed at IdahoSpendingIndex.com.