By Zach Hagadone
Lawmakers in Boise gaveled back into session April 6 after an 18-day recess prompted by an outbreak of COVID-19 among a number legislators and staffers; yet, according to multiple Statehouse sources, continued to go about the business of the state unmasked and ignoring social distancing protocols recommended by both Idaho health care officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A number of critical pieces of legislation remain in limbo — among them, the budget for the Welfare Division of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which House members voted 27-42 to kill on their first day back on the floor.
Republican Reps. Sage Dixon, of Ponderay, and Heath Scott, of Blanchard, voted against the funding bill, which drew scrutiny for $33.7 million in one-time federal funding to support child care providers amid the stresses of COVID-19.
Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, balked at the “sizable amount of money” flowing from the federal coronavirus relief measure, according to the Idaho Press, wondering aloud whether that sum would be commensurate with the number of providers who might need it.
The vote included some Republicans, such as House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, who chairs the Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee, joining Democrats in supporting the funding. It’s failure means the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will have to reconvene to come up with a new proposal.
The Idaho Constitution requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget each year before adjourning sine die. With the death of the IDHW budget — which totals $200 million — it means the Legislature will likely stay in session for at least the next few weeks, far longer into the spring than normal.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Senate killed another bill related to children on April 6 — this time, focused on the so-called “Strong Students” grant program, which makes available funding to low-income families who wish to pay $500 or less on tutoring.
According to reports, opponents keyed in the nation that parents may be allowed to leverage those funds for tuition and fees at private schools.
Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, was among those who stood against the bill, stating, “Our Constitution does say that we have a duty to public schools. It does not say we have a duty to fund private schools.”
Meridian Republican Sen. Lori Den Hartog brought the bill, saying it “is not a threat to public schools and it was never intended to be,” according to Statehouse reporters. Republicans were split on the bill: 16 voted “yea” and 11 voted “nay.” Democrats — all seven of them in the Senate — voted “nay.”
According to Idaho Ed News, much work remains to be done regarding education funding. The nonprofit news organization outlined a number of items that should come up in the final days of the 2021 session. Among that business includes the K-12 public schools budget; the higher ed budget, which the Senate passed but House killed late on April 7; a bill authorizing grant funding for early education; and a bill to fund all-day kindergarten, which has long been a political football, with conservative lawmakers arguing for decades that the responsibility for early childhood education lays more on parents than the state.
Rep. Dixon, meanwhile, made some headlines with a proposal April 6 that would grant Idaho veto power over federal government and court actions. According to the Associated Press, Dixon recognized that the measure will certainly draw heavy legal criticism, but, “This is us flexing our muscles as a state that we need to do. And it is a growing argument throughout many states in the U.S., so I think we’ll see this popping up more across the country.”
Finally, lawmakers are poised to vote on Senate Bill 1110 — the legislation that would raise the requirements for securing a citizens initiative on Idaho ballots. Proponents say the current rules favor urban communities while opponents characterize the measure as tantamount to voter suppression.
The Idaho Press reported that debate in the evening hours of April 7 had grown heated, with House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, stating that SB 1110 is an “unheard of” curtailment of citizens’ constitutional rights to bring issues to the ballot.
“There’s no state that does anything like this. If y’all are afraid of what the people of Idaho want to do and what their agenda is, and you feel it is important to block that, you may be in the wrong line of work,” Rubel said, according to the Press.
Dixon presented similar legislation in 2019, though it was thwarted. Speaking in favor of this bill, he said, “I don’t think any of us are afraid of what our constituents have to say to us.”
Rather, he argued, raising the bar for signature-gathering in all of Idaho’s legislative districts for ballot initiatives is not unlike the legislative election process — with voters in all 35 districts electing lawmakers to serve in the Senate and House.
Yet it was House Democrats who sounded the alarm about the erosion of constitutional rights — long the province of Idaho conservatives, including first-term Caldwell Republican Rep. Ben Adams, who launched into a speech on the House floor April 6, apropos of nothing, exhorting in high tones his fellow lawmakers to “wake up” to pernicious federalism. (On his legislative profile, Adams lists his occupation as “public speaker.”)
Meanwhile, according to the Press, Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, said, “While it’s certainly our constitutional authority to change the restrictions around the ballot initiative process, we also have a duty to uphold a right. So If I were to present a bill that made Idaho the toughest place in America to buy a gun, I would not be treated with a warm reception. And If we make Idaho the most difficult place in America to bring a ballot initiative — that have that in their Constitution — we are not honoring and protecting that constitutional right.”
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