Public hearings during Idaho legislature deemed a success

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 8:14 p.m. MDT

BOISE, Idaho — The unprecedented public hearings during the 2011 Legislature at the Idaho Capitol, which in some instances drew hundreds of people, were a success, a state official says.

Legislative Service Director Jeff Youtz on Friday told state lawmakers on the Legislative Council that he thought overall the public meetings went well.

"The opportunity for the public to participate is just tremendous in this newly redesigned building," he said. "We could never have done that in the past."

Renovations costing $120 million and completed in time for the 2010 Legislature expanded space for large groups of people. The refurbished Capitol included new offices in underground wings on the western and eastern sides of the building, as well as spacious hearing rooms for the House and Senate.

During this year's session, hundreds attended a 41/2-hour hearing on a measure to cut some $39 million in Medicaid funding, with the crowd spilling out into the hallways of the Capitol basement.

"I don't recall a session where we had a greater amount of public input including from people outside of this valley than this year," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. "I think it was remarkable."

But Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said some people who traveled long distances weren't allowed to testify, despite being high on the signup list.

"There's nothing more frustrating than having someone fly in at their own expense, and realize they're never going to get in front of the committee," Malepeai said.

He suggested creating a new system for running the meetings.

But other lawmakers disagreed, saying having the committee chairmen determine how hearings are handled works best.

"I like the idea of leaving how those hearings are run in the hands of the committee chairmen," said Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. "That's their responsibility to do that. I'd hate to mandate from somewhere else how those are done. I think each one of those hearings is a little bit different."

Davis acknowledged that not everybody who traveled long distances and wanted to testify got the chance.

"There may be from time to time those tragic kinds of examples, but we saw those committees running deeply into the evening to accommodate people who came from not the Treasure Valley area," Davis said.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said the alternating testimony of people for and against legislation possibly gave a false impression of the support for a particular piece of legislation.

"That pro-con trading attempts to present the two sides as if they are equally divided when in fact they are 8-1," she said. "I think that tends to warp what is going to come out."

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