The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is by far the most powerful committee in the Idaho Legislature. Made up of 10 state senators and 10 state representatives, it is charged with setting the state's budget each year — subject to a vote by the full bodies of each chamber.
For more than a decade, JFAC has been co-chaired by the capable hands (and minds) of Sen. Dean Cameron and Rep. Maxine Bell. The pair come from the same eastern Idaho region and have built a partnership based on trust, fiscal responsibility and a deep friendship. This week that changed with the departure of Cameron, who will be joining Gov. Butch Otter's administration as the director of the Idaho Department of Insurance.
Cameron will be an asset to an executive branch too often plagued by incompetence, if not corruption. He is a well-established insurance expert and has a proven record of making government more efficient and effective. Hopefully his advice will be sought on issues far outside of those officially under his oversight.
As JFAC co-chair, Cameron will be replaced by the only Idaho elected official I respect more: North Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough. The longest-serving woman ever in the Idaho Senate, she has a history of thoughtful decisions rooted in a deep understanding of Idaho and the people she represents. She will excel as co-chair.
During the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, I worked for Cameron and Keough, among others, as the Senate Majority Communications Director. It was an experience that made me determined to abandon partisan politics and political parties — choosing instead to focus on advancing the people-focused policies I care most about.
In adopting this philosophy I believe I am emulating, as best I can, the approach Cameron has long taken to public service. He is a committed Republican, but his actions seem to be shaped less by partisan concerns than concern for people. I was particularly inspired by Cameron's successful advocacy for JFAC to hold public hearings on Idaho's budget for the first time in 2011.
It was a tough year for Idaho's budget. With falling revenue and no political appetite for raising taxes in this deeply "red" state, painful cuts would have to be made. I enthusiastically greeted Cameron's decision to throw open the doors to Idaho's complex budget deliberations and invite the public to participate. That said, I doubted that it was good politics — and feared it could be a disaster — but it was clearly the right thing to do. I was thrilled to see idealism trump political calculations.
Thousands of Idahoans answered Cameron's call, flooding the Capitol to provide their testimony and requiring multiple overflow rooms to be opened. Thousands more watched online and provided testimony to the committee by email. Their stories were heartwrenching and made clear just how painful the cuts being proposed were in extraordinarily personal human terms.
Following the public hearings, cuts were still made — there was no feasible political path to avoid them — but they were made more carefully, made better, because of the testimony provided. Also, more draconian cuts were dismissed out of hand after the public made clear the real price of such an approach.
It was an important event in itself, but it was also the embodiment of the philosophy Dean Cameron has brought to governing for more than two decades: The people must be heard; not just the people from your party or from your community, but all the people.
I know I am not the only person who hopes that Cameron's retirement from elected office will be a short one. ♦
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, is the executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho. He has been active in protecting Idaho's environment, expanding LGBT rights and the Idaho Republican Party. ♦