By Zach Hagadone
Even from almost 500 miles away, the tension at the Idaho Statehouse is palpable as the Legislature continues into its near-historic time in session — topping 108 days as of April 28, just 10 shy of the record set in 2003. Meanwhile, the body has focused most of its energy on “social issues,” as Idaho Press Capitol Bureau correspondent Betsy Z. Russel put it in her April 25 column at idahopress.com.
A particular handful of ultra-conservative House members — including local Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard; Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay; and Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird — have steered the 2021 session, dominating the proceedings with a power struggle versus Gov. Brad Little over his executive authority; pushing through a deeply unpopular piece of legislation tightening the requirements for putting citizens’ initiatives on the ballot; scuttling a number of education funding bills over concerns about the “indoctrination” of Idaho students with “social justice” and “critical race theory” curricula; and, over the past week, an emotionally jarring scandal centered on allegations that Lewiston Republican Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger raped a 19-year-old legislative staffer in March. (More about that from the Idaho Capital Sun news service story above).
Amid all that fractiousness, the nuts-and-bolts functioning of government has gone by the wayside — so much so that the Associated Press reported April 27 that should the Legislature fail to adjourn in the coming weeks it may result in the shutdown of many state offices and services even as an estimated 200 bills, including 65 pieces of crucial funding legislation, cannot be legally made effective on July 1.
According to the AP, those bills can’t become law until the Legislature has been out of session for 60 days. That means shutdowns may begin as early as June, according to an official with the governor’s office.
As state media has reported, the ad hoc Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution submitted a letter to Little marking out its concerns — including that a measure to make those bills effective on July 1 whether the Legislature is in session or not is in violation of the Idaho Constitution.
What’s more, under the Idaho Constitution, the Legislature serves part-time from January through March, though the AP reported that lawmakers have fronted a measure that would allow them to continue in session until Sept. 1.
“This Legislature does not seem to give a whit about the Idaho Constitution or the fact that they have to act within its limitations,” said Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution member Jim Jones, who also served as chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, according to the AP.
The education budget
In the meantime, education funding has proved to be among the biggest sticking points for the 2021 legislative session. Always a political football — its suite of budgets accounting for the largest single appropriation for state monies — this year it has been almost intractable as far-right legislators leveraged opposition to “social justice” and “critical race theory” into what Democratic Rep. James Ruchti of Pocatello called a “hostage” situation “by the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party.”
According to Boise-based KTVB-TV, Ruchti said, “[I]t’s not really about being meticulous and careful in the traditional sense, it’s trying to avoid upsetting the extreme right-wing or trying to pacify them and that’s not good for Idahoans — what that means is that good legislation is being held hostage by their needs and wants.”
Lewiston Republian Sen. Dan Johnson was the sole member of his party break ranks on the bill in the upper house, saying that while he too is opposed to “critical race theory” — which is a method of social science inquiry that recognizes racism as a social construct linked with and perpetuated by legal structures, as well as other cultural forces — he disliked “the path we took to get here. I think we’re setting a precedent for next year and future sessions going down this road,” according to the Idaho Statesman.
Scott, as well as Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and Giddings, have all been loud voices rallying their bases on the issue. Scott in her April 24 newsletter stated that “a social justice bill for children age 0-5 is coming” and would include $6 million in federal funding for curricula that would end up “promoting social justice propaganda” in Idaho public schools — even raising the specter of “‘wearable’ digital monitoring devices on children age 0-5.”
Meanwhile, McGeachin is building a task force dedicated “to protect[ing] our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism and Marxism.”
Giddings applauded McGeachin’s efforts, according to KTVB, stating: “I appreciate the Lt. Gov. taking the initiative to push back against the flawed concept that white people are inherently racist and that our young people should be made to feel guilty for actions they have never committed and biases they have never displayed.”
Idaho education leaders have categorically denied any such “indoctrination” occurring in the state education system. According to incoming Idaho State Board of Education President Kurt Liebich, speaking on April 22 and quoted by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, “Forty-seven years I spent actively in Idaho education. I spent thousands of hours in classrooms. I never, at any point, saw one single issue of indoctrination. I can tell you that teachers are not inclined to do that. They take the standards of teaching very seriously, and, frankly, they have all they can do to teach the skills and to help students grow and mature.”
Yet, Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra in a statement April 14 signaled support for the so-called “Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Public Education” legislation (House Bill 377) stating, “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.”
The bill passed 57-12, with one abstaining, in the House — with both Dixon and Scott in favor — and 27-8 in the Senate — with Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, in favor — and is now headed to the governor’s desk, though it prompted more than 100 students, ranging in age from middle-schoolers to college, to turn out at the Statehouse on April 26 in opposition.
One student, an eighth-grader at North Junior High in Boise, criticized the bill, stating according to the Idaho Press that, “Many people seem to think that teaching our students about the cruelty and suffering of our country’s past is some form of self-hatred for our own county. But, make no mistake, this is self-awareness.”
Brinkmanship over the education budget reached another level April 27, when the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee returned with a rewritten budget for $1.1 billion in teacher salaries, which lawmakers killed earlier in the month on issues of “social justice” and “critical race theory,” and a slimmed-down higher ed budget — cut $2.5 million from its initial $315 million — which some legislators similarly opposed on the notion that it would fund diversity, social justice and inclusivity programs.
Idaho Capital Sun reported that Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, pushed for the funding reduction, in order “to remove state support for social justice programming.”
The news service reported that both budgets now need to go back through both chambers of the Legislature.
At the same time, the House turned down more than $40 million in federal funding for COVID-19 testing in schools — the opposition being led in part by Scott, whom the Idaho Capital Sun quoted as stating on the floor: “This is just more government; it’s more data collection on our kids.”
The House killed the bill 41-28, which left House Democrats scratching their heads.
“I am surprised at the amount of pushback this is getting; I’ve been hearing all session we need kids back in schools,” said Boise Democratic Rep. Colin Nash, quote by ICS. “This is the money that is going to be able to keep them in school all year.”
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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