By Zach Hagadone
Only twice before has the Idaho Legislature been in session as long as it has in 2021. In 2003, lawmakers sat for a record 118 days, mostly on account of debate over raising the tax on cigarettes. In 2009, the body met for 117 days, in large part because of fallout over the 2008 recession. As of April 14, the 2021 legislative session had lasted for 94 days, albeit with an unprecedented two-week mid-session recess due to an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Statehouse in Boise.
Add to that the ersatz session convened in June 2020 — when 15 Republican lawmakers, with Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott among their leaders — gathered unofficially in the House Chambers to express their displeasure with Gov. Brad Little’s by-then lapsed stay-at-home order. Also add to that the official “extraordinary session” convened in Boise in August 2020 to officially address COVID-19 in the state — during which right-wing activists perpetrated a minor incursion against the Statehouse that resulted in two separate arrests of celebrity extreme conservative agitator Ammon Bundy by Idaho State Police.
Altogether, Idaho lawmakers have seen more action over the past 12 months as has been precedent for the otherwise “part-time” Legislature, which sits for an average of 90 days each year, according to Boise-based KTVB-TV.
Yet, according to capital watchers, we have at least another 10 or so days before legislators adjourn sine die. Key budgets such as education “and countless bills” remained to be addressed, reported KTVB, meaning, “Gem State lawmakers have a chance at making the 2021 session the longest in state history.”
Now in extra innings, the Idaho Legislature is picking up and putting down bills in seemingly scattershot style, as Capitol reporters — both in the building and trying to follow remotely — scramble to keep up with quick-step schedule changes and forays into fringe legislative sideroads, such as the right-field proposal to merge parts of eastern Oregon and non-coastal northern California into something called “Greater Idaho.”
Here’s a brief — by no means complete — roundup:
The initiatives bill
Much ink has and will be spilled on Senate Bill 1110, which would put substantial barriers before citizen initiatives like the one in 2018 that resulted in Medicaid expansion. Both the House and Senate passed the legislation, which would require 6% of registered voters in every one of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to sign on before an initiative could be certified for statewide voting. The current requirement — which opponents of SB 1110 say is strict enough — demands signatures from 6% of all Idaho voters as well as 6% of voters in 18 districts.
Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, voted against the bill, telling the Reader in March that, “moving from 50% of districts to 100% of legislative districts is a bit of a leap.”
Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, whose similar legislation in 2019 met with a veto from Little, told the Reader in March that, “I do believe S1110 will result in better representation for rural counties in the initiative process.”
The bill now sits with Little, who may either sign it into law or issue a veto. In the meantime, as of presstime, more than 17,400 Idahoans had signed a petition calling on Little to veto SB 1110 — an effort fronted by grassroots nonprofit organization Reclaim Idaho, which led the successful Medicaid expansion initiative effort. What’s more, in a canny political move, Reclaim Idaho has filed the Idaho Initiatives Rights Act of 2022 with the office of the Idaho secretary of state — itself an citizens’ initiative to protect citizens’ initiatives.
Reclaim Idaho organizers have stated that they only plan to initiate a campaign should Little sign SB 1110 into law — which could happen at any time. (For more on Reclaim Idaho’s stance on SB 1110, see Page 8).
Opposition to the bill has come from other quarters, too, including a consortium of former Idaho attorneys general, a former-chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and a number of lawyers in various parts of the state. Calling itself the “Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution,” the group stated its mission in March: “Legislators have shown an alarming disrespect for our State Constitution this session and it is incumbent upon members of the legal profession to call them to account.”
The surest harbinger of another week or more of the Legislature is movement (or lack thereof) on the Education Budget — actually a collection of budgets that amount to some of the biggest to be addressed by the Legislature, which by the state constitution must be settled before adjournment.
House members — including Dixon and Scott — voted down a $1.1 billion appropriation for teacher pay April 13, citing concerns that “critical race theory” would be taught to elementary students.
The vote was a 34-34 tie, though per House rules tie votes result in failure of the measure.
If approved, House Bill 354 would have in part funded teacher salaries on the so-called “career ladder,” which by law provides for yearly increases based on experience and credentials. Those bumps were foregone in the past session, meaning Idaho educators would go another year without their legally guaranteed wage hikes.
According to the Idaho Press, Scott was among those who spearheaded the opposition.
Concern among some lawmakers that students would somehow be required to learn “critical race theory” has been stoked by what Idaho Press Capitol Correspondent Betsy Z. Russell referred to as, “false claims promoted by the Idaho Freedom Foundation that a federal early-learning grant would require Idaho to partner with a national group promoting those theories.”
Russell quoted Scott: “We need to protect our teachers from being forced to teach this garbage of social justice including critical race theory. … There’s a lot of ideology coming to our schools.”
Lacking that component of the budget, the session is likely to continue even to the end of the month, as members of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee return to the legislation to draft another version.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin — who has made consistent headlines for her hard-right stance on a range of issues, including naysaying Gov. Little’s coronavirus mitigation efforts — said on April 9 that she plans to put together a task force targeting instances of critical race theory and leftist ideologies including Marxism in public schools.
Idaho Ed News quoted McGeachin, who is widely speculated to challenge Little in the next election, stating, “We must find where these insidious theories and philosophies are lurking and excise them from our education system. Idahoans are increasingly frustrated by the apparent lack of awareness and leadership coming from the state on these issues.”
An attempt to appropriate $4,000 for McGeachin’s task force failed in JFAC by a wide margin.
Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra issued a statement April 14 assuring Idahoans that the state’s teachers “share our Idaho values because they are our friends and neighbors.
“We also recognize that cancel culture and political agendas have no place in our schools. I support the Legislature’s efforts to put in law what is already a standing practice in our schools,” she added.
Finally, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, sponsored a bill April 14 that passed 12-3 on a party-line vote through the House Education Committee that would legally protect students at higher education institutions for expressing views “that may also be counter to those that the professor or even the majority of the classroom [hold].” If a school violates the law, Ehardt’s bill would open the way for the court to award damages of $5,000 to the student, payable by the educational institution.
Ehardt described the bill — HB 364 — as an attempt to protect free speech.
A Republican effort to “defund” the state attorney general’s office has died in committee. The push to punish the AG reached a fever pitch during the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath, as Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden refused to join more than a dozen fellow state attorneys general in opposing the election loss of former-President Donald Trump.
A majority of Idaho senators rejected two bills that previously passed the House, seeking to limit certain powers of the office, which under Wasden has routinely counseled the Legislature against unconstitutional bills that later were overturned in the courts, costing the state $3 million in legal fees since 1995, according to the Associated Press.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal