By Zach Hagadone
As the Idaho Legislature steams toward meeting or exceeding its previous record for number of days in session — reaching 101 days on April 21, nearing the 118-day mark set in 2003 — key budgets such as education and transportation remain unsettled as lawmakers spar with Gov. Brad Little over the powers of the legislative branch.
The power struggle has centered on two pieces of legislation: House Bill 135 and Senate Bill 1136, both of which would both curtail the governor’s authority in times of emergencies.
Calling it “just plain irresponsible,” Little vetoed SB 1136 on April 16, prompting an attempt to override his decision in the Senate. That vote failed 23-12 — short by just one vote to meet the necessary two-thirds majority.
Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, was among those who opposed overriding Little’s veto, telling the Sandpoint Reader, “I am always supportive of making our Idaho laws better. However, I voted not to support the veto override because of the potential unknowns with the proposed changes.
“We heard a myriad of legal opinions as to what the changes would or would not do,” he added. “Just as folks were frustrated this year to find that Idaho law allows some of the actions that were taken during the pandemic response, we could find ourselves in a worse predicament with a new section of code.”
Woodward said that the existing code addressed by SB 1136 “has served us well since 1927.”
Meanwhile, Little vetoed HB 135 on April 20 — spurring lawmakers on April 21 to mount an override effort. House members met the necessary two-thirds majority, with 48-19 voting in favor of overturning the governor’s veto.
Three members were absent for the vote, according to reports, including Lewiston Republican Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, who is currently at the center of an escalating scandal over rape allegations brought against him April 16 by a legislative staffer. Compounding the controversy, supporters of von Ehlinger — including Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird — publicly revealed the name of his accuser, with Giddings saying the accusations are a “blatant liberal smear job,” according to the Associated Press.
Republican Reps. Sage Dixon, of Ponderay, and Heather Scott, of Blanchard, both voted in favor of the override. Neither responded to a request for comment on a number of legislative topics prior to the vote, but in her remarks on the floor — quoted by the Idaho Press — Scott said, “We need a rebalance of these powers. This is something I believe our body really needs to do is stand up against tyranny.”
Scott made headlines around the country last spring, when she referred to the governor as “Little Hitler” for his use of emergency powers — including business closures — in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the veto override is official, it will also have to pass the Senate by a two-thirds majority.
“I believe our current law will continue to work until we come to widespread agreement on any changes,” Woodward told the Reader. “We are looking for a balance between the duties of the executive branch, responsible for day-to-day operation of our system of self-governance, and the duties of the Legislature, our policy-setting body which must write law worthy of the ages.”
In approaching how best to balance the powers and duties held by the executive and legislative branches, Woodward said he has sought the counsel of the Idaho adjutant general and director of the Idaho Office of Emergency Management.
“Both expressed concerns with the proposed changes and how it would affect their ability to respond to emergencies,” he said. “These two Idaho National Guard generals are the boots on the ground in Idaho emergencies. I trust their assessment of the bill and, having worn the U.S. military uniform myself, I trust their loyalty to this state and the country.”
According to the Boise-based Idaho Capital Sun news service, both the House and Senate adjourned early for the day on April 20, with the former deferring action on four education budgets and the Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Welfare budget that they scuppered on April 6, resulting in a rewrite from the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
The Idaho Press reported in the afternoon of April 21 that the House Ways and Means Committee was due to take up a bill on “public education, non-discrimination,” along with another piece of legislation on effective dates for the legislative session.
On the education budget — which consists of several budgets covering the full range of the state’s public education system — a major sticking point, especially for House members, has been the issue of funding for “critical race theory and social justice” being taught in public schools.
Scott, in her April 19 newsletter, decried SB 1193, which passed 18-17 in the Senate and would allocate $6 million to the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, which she characterized as “an activist nonprofit” that would use the money for “a federal program to indoctrinate children from birth to 5 with critical race theory and social justice.”
Yet, as Idaho Education News reported on April 19, “lawmakers offered no specific examples of social justice or critical race theory instruction in K-12 schools.”
Likewise, in an email to the Reader, Woodward wrote that the ed budgets have spurred “significant pushback from a special-interest lobbying group in Boise that alleges our Idaho education system is rife with social justice and critical race theory teachings.
“For those of us with children in the public schools, I believe it is fairly clear to see this is not the case in our local districts,” he added, going to state that, “I find it unfortunate the statewide education community is suffering in the meantime.”
Among the bills being held up — or killed outright — amid the so-called “social justice” debate were a $1.1 billion teacher salaries budget and the $315 million higher ed budget.
Legislators are required by the Idaho Constitution to both pass a balanced budget before adjourning and “to provide a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” — neither of which can be accomplished without agreeing on education funding.
Meanwhile, Woodward said he is hopeful that increased transportation funding will be approved without raising taxes by drawing on sales tax money that has already been collected. He also said he hopes to see a property tax bill to increase the homeowner’s exemption and legislative approval to allocate some one-time monies to the budget stabilization fund in order to help return the state to its pre-recession level of rainy-day savings.
The initiatives bill
After much controversy, Little signed SB 1110 into law on April 17, much to the consternation of some legislators, citizens and advocacy groups alike who decried the legislation as effectively curtailing Idahoans’ constitutional right to put forth citizens’ ballot initiatives.
The measure requires that 6% of registered voters in all 35 of Idaho’s legislative districts sign on to a petition even before an initiative can appear on the ballot. Previous law required signatures to be gathered from 6% of registered voters in 18 of 35 districts, which supporters of SB 1110 said gave more power to populous parts of the state. Opponents of the bill — including Reclaim Idaho, which led the successful initiative effort to expand Medicaid — said the 18-of-35 districts requirement was difficult enough; raising the standard to include all 35 districts would make signature gathering all but impossible.
Woodward voted against SB 1110, telling the Reader, “I have been supportive of increasing the number of districts where signature gathering must take place, but I saw the proposed requirement for all 35 districts as too onerous. After all, we all get to vote on an initiative when it does make the ballot. The petition process is not the vote.”
In a letter April 17 announcing he had signed SB 1110, Little noted that he vetoed two similar bills in 2019 and, while he has “similar concerns” about this bill’s “constitutional sufficiency,” applauded the effort of “ensuring that initiatives have a minimum level of support throughout all of Idaho before they are placed on the ballot.”
In a news release April 17, Reclaim Idaho stated, “We are angry and deeply disappointed by the governor’s failure to uphold the Constitution.” The grassroots nonprofit went on to announce it will sue based on the unconstitutionality of SB 1110 and, failing that, has filed the Initiatives Rights Act, described as “a ballot initiative that will give the people of idaho a chance to protect their initiative rights in the event that the courts do not decide in the people’s favor.”
It’s anyone’s guess when the 2021 legislative session will end. Woodward said that while, “we are slowly moving toward some of the goals of the 2021 legislative session … Right now, I don’t know when we will finish the session.
“Typically, we are in session January through March. We find ourselves in late April with no clear path to the finish line,” he added. “Last week, we ran out of work in the Senate as we waited for bills to move through the House. The Idaho Constitution allows one body to recess for no more than three days at a time without the consent of both bodies. You may see the Senate meeting just a few days a week to meet this requirement while we wait for the budget bills to move through the House.”
Until then, check back for more updates in next week’s Reader, tune into Idaho in Session on idahoptv.org or follow events at legislature.idaho.gov.
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