By Zach Hagadone
A little more than two weeks after the 2023 Idaho Legislature adjourned on April 6, the Bonner County Republican Central Committee issued a vote of “no-confidence” in District 1A Rep. Mark Sauter, R-Sandpoint, citing a number of instances in an April 24 news release where the freshman lawmaker failed to “represent the Republican Platform and the principles of the Idaho Republican Party.”
Specifically, the BCRCC — which serves as the official Republican Party organization for the county — took Sauter to task for his votes on a number of issues:
• Senate Bill 1130, which would have limited the ability of public and private entities to require COVID vaccinations for employees or other service providers, and which Sauter opposed;
• House Bill 24, the so-called Idaho Launch Program, which allocated $80 million to support post-secondary professional-technical workforce training, which Sauter supported;
• HB 180, which would have empowered the Idaho state treasurer to invest “idle state monies” into precious metals “as a hedge against inflation,” according to the BCRCC, but which Sauter voted against;
• HB 293, which would have established that State Board of Education members be elected based on geographic region, as opposed to being appointed by the governor, and which Sauter opposed;
• Sauter’s opposition to legislation introducing education savings accounts;
• Sauter’s support for $4.7 billion in spending on Medicaid — which failed by one vote in the House but returned after about $150 million in cuts and was signed by Gov. Brad Little;
• HB 314, dubbed the Children’s School and Library Protection Act, which would have defined material deemed “obscene or harmful material,” restricted its availability to children in school and public libraries, and carried with it the ability of parents to sue the respective institutions for up to $2,500 for violations of the law. Sauter opposed the measure, it passed the House and Senate, then met with a veto from Little. When House members attempted to override Little’s veto, Sauter was among the members to vote against the effort.
“Representative Sauter was the single vote by which a House veto override vote failed,” the BCRCC stated, later concluding, “We encourage Representative Mark Sauter to reevaluate his record and positions and take action to bring them into conformance with Idaho’s Republican Party Platform.”
The BCRCC consists of 30 precinct committee members elected by party members biennially in the May GOP primary, as well as a number of elected officers. Among those officers is Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, who serves as president.
“The vote of no-confidence is a party committee decision that is meant to encourage and urge Mark to consider several significant positions of the party platform,” Herndon told the Reader in an email. “The committee action only reflects the committee’s dissatisfaction with his voting record and policy positions. There are over 30 members on the committee. The vote should not be interpreted to reflect my personal views regarding our delegation’s ability to solve district problems.”
Further, Herndon said he and District 1B Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, have held a number of town halls together “and work well together,” while, “Mark and I also have communicated well together.”
“Many times our collective work as a delegation has mostly to do with issues that are fairly non-political, like a current highway issue in Boundary County,” Herndon added. “I think the delegation will continue to cooperate respectfully together, even when we disagree on key issues.”
In an email to the Reader, Dixon said that while he had “little knowledge of what happened” — having only heard of the vote of no-confidence on the afternoon of April 25 — “[t]his means very little other than that the group doing the censuring will use it against Rep. Sauter in the upcoming primary campaign, and it does not affect the District 1 delegation, which has been somewhat variegated in its composition for years.”
In an interview with the Reader, Sauter said the vote of no-confidence “calls the actual teamwork into question,” regarding the delegation.
“Is it intimidation? Is it humiliation? What’s the real interests? I won’t speculate,” he said, adding later, “I believe I am in conformance and I believe I am voting for our district. … I serve the 53,000 people that live and work in Boundary and Bonner counties — those are the people that elected me.”
Putting a finer point on, Sauter noted in a written statement to the Reader, “I ran without the endorsement of the Bonner County [Republican] Central Committee. I never asked for their support. Despite the lack of the central committee endorsement, I won with a majority of votes in the election.”
In an interview, he added, “Their endorsement, you could say, is their vote of confidence. I never asked for it, never got it, but now they’re going to pull it back and say, ‘By the way, we don’t have confidence in you.’ Well, you never gave it to me.”
Bill by bill
In a wide-ranging interview April 26, Sauter addressed the individual pieces of legislation and issues highlighted in the BCRCC’s news release.
While the committee described SB 1130 — limiting the ability of public and private entities to require vaccines — an “anti-discrimination bill,” Sauter said, “We’re supposed to have a business-friendly environment in our state. Telling businesses who they have to serve and how they have to do it — that’s not part of our business-friendly environment, so I voted against it.”
Regarding HB 24, which funded post-secondary workforce training, the BCRCC called it a “corporate welfare program” that improperly allocated funds meant for K-12 education to professional-technical programs.
Sauter countered that the Idaho Launch Program offers an $8,000 grant to high-school graduates to start their certificate training for future employment — an issue he ran on in the 2022 primary.
“There’s a need in our community, as I have found, in that we don’t have enough trades. There’s not enough electricians, plumbers, welders — plus CNAs — there’s just openings across our district for skilled positions that pay well,” he said. “All those employers are looking for people.”
Given that, Sauter said he felt HB 24 “looked like a pretty good investment to me.”
With HB 180, by which the state treasurer could have invested “idle” state dollars into gold and silver, Sauter said, “I just didn’t see that it was responsible.”
Rather, he added, those funds are “like a checking account. Most of us would not use gold and silver in the place of our checking accounts — we’d want to use something that’s a little more liquid.”
On HB 293, subjecting members of the State Board of Education to elections, rather than appointment by the governor, Sauter said that while he can see the argument in favor of gaining more regional representation, he worried that it “essentially would politicize the state board.”
Beyond that, he opposed the costs associated with adding another category of elected officials.
“I didn’t like the idea that we’re now going to add to the bureaucracy, which is another Republican standard: Do not grow government. Well, here we are, we’re going to add $80,000 to the budget to pay for these people,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was good government.”
Regarding education savings accounts, which the BCRCC said would “increase Idaho’s flexibility in meeting the educational needs of students,” Sauter said, “It sure sounds like we set up a secondary school system.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me that we would add $20 million-$30 million to the budget to take care of these ESAs — that’s in addition to our other public schools,” he said.
Rather, he said Idaho already has a range of education options, and various ESA legislation seemed geared more toward finding a way to direct property tax revenue to religious schools, which is currently prohibited by the Blaine amendment to the Idaho Constitution.
“That didn’t seem like a very Republican, conservative thing to do — to start new bureaucracies, new programs, and that has to be funded, so I voted against them,” he added.
Sauter defended his vote on HB 369 to approve the Medicaid budget because, “if there’s any extra money in that budget, it gets rolled to next year — it’s an insurance policy. … On the opposite side of that, if we don’t set aside enough money they come back with a supplement request to fill that need.”
Finally, the controversial HB 314 regarding “obscene” or “harmful” materials in libraries, Sauter said simply, “It’s a bill that needs to be better.”
“I really didn’t like the civil action [portion]; further, I thought it was too broadly written,” he added. “We need a better bill. I do not support obscenity and I do not support pornography in our libraries or anywhere near our kids. But a bill that isn’t complete and isn’t really right … let’s fix it. Let’s make it right.”
The BCRCC isn’t the only conservative organization that has looked askance at Sauter’s record over his first session as a lawmaker. Idaho Freedom Action — a wing of the Idaho Freedom Foundation — gave Sauter an “F” on its “Freedom Index,” as well as Spending and Education indices, specifically for his votes on HB 24, HB 369 and HB 314.
Dixon earned a “C” on the organization’s Freedom Index, a “D+” on its Spending Index and “A+” on the Education Index. Herndon, meanwhile, earned an “A+” on all three indices.
Sauter said several central committees — as well as the IFF and its affiliates — “have been notifying other state legislators of their disapproval in similar ways. Representatives who have supported education and other conservative community causes have been the targets of this campaign.”
Meanwhile, Sauter isn’t the first serving legislator to run afoul of the BCRCC. Former-Dist. 1 Republican Sen. Shawn Keough — who served from 1996 to 2018 and is currently a member of the Idaho State Board of Education — also drew a vote of no-confidence from the committee in 2011, alongside then-Dist. 2 Republican Sen. Joyce Broadsword over redistricting.
“Although the central committee members had viewpoints and expressed them, there is a larger number of Republicans in the county and in the legislative district that elected me and I listened to them, too. I would say that is the definition of effectively representing constituents in our republic: the elected official listens to the input and then represents and votes accordingly,” Keough told the Reader in an email.
“While the BCRCC has the prerogative to issue a statement, as was done in my case and in this case with Rep. Sauter, I don’t feel it puts the central committee in a positive light,” Keough added. “Those types of concerns should be aired in the central committee meeting and with the official, and addressed internally, in my view.
“To me, the approach taken in this instance and in other similar instances smacks of petty politics and doesn’t reflect well on the committee.”
More recently, in 2021, then-Dist. 1 Republican Sen. Jim Woodward faced a call by the BCRCC for his “disaffiliation” from the party and resignation from the Statehouse. Woodward faced Herndon in the 2022 primary, seeking a third term, but the latter prevailed after a grueling election cycle featuring a hitherto unprecedented amount of negative campaigning — primarily coming from the Herndon camp.
“The BCRCC no-confidence vote is an issue about compliance,” Woodward told the Reader in an email. “The BCRCC, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, and particularly Scott Herndon, demand lock-step compliance with their beliefs.
“The BCRCC doesn’t understand the significance of getting law right the first time,” he added. “They look for a vote based on ideology, not considering the effects on Idahoans, e.g., the current predicament preventing delivery of babies at our local hospital. The details matter. Rep. Sauter is considering the details and voting in your best interests.”
Woodward went on to state, “The BCRCC doesn’t believe in majority rule. These 30 or so party members want to determine who your legislators are, as opposed to you choosing who best represents your interests. They are attempting to dictate a way of life in the county that is not what we are.”
He also criticized the characterization of Sauter as being the deciding vote in the failed attempt to override Little’s veto of the library “obscenity” bill in the House.
“In fact, 24 members of the Idaho House voted against the override,” Woodward wrote. “No one member is the determining vote.”
Bonner County Commission Chairman Steve Bradshaw — the highest elected legislative official in the county, and also a Republican — agreed, telling the Reader in an email that while he wasn’t present in Boise for any specific votes, “I am sure Mr. Sauter was not the only one to vote on any issue. That being said, having past experience with BCRCC, if you don’t agree with them then you are the bad guy. Maybe I’m ‘Too American Patriot’ for them.”
Asked what a vote of no-confidence accomplishes, Herndon told the Reader that more than 770 delegates to the most recent Idaho Republican convention debated to define and establish the party’s platform.
“We want those who affiliate with the Republican Party to substantially agree with those positions, and the vote shows respect for the principles and invites a challenge to consider the representative’s record in regards to the party’s principles,” he wrote.
“Republican isn’t just a name or a label. It represents shared values. If someone is substantially out of alignment and plans to remain significantly out of alignment with Republican principles, we invite those elected officials to consider other parties with which they may better align,” Herndon added. “Idaho does not have to be a one-party state. A healthy republic should encompass divergent views which are represented by other competitive parties.”
Considering what the vote of no-confidence means to him, Sauter said that while, “I take it seriously,” he also indicated that, “I’m in good company, to be on the same list as Shawn Keough and Jim Woodward. I’ll take that. They’re good people — good Idahoans, who served our area very well. …
“I was elected to do my best to represent our area and get things done,” he added, “and that’s what I intend to keep doing.”
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