By Zach Hagadone
For those keeping score at home, the Idaho Legislature was in session for more than 300 days this year — pushing the part-time, “citizen Legislature” into an historically long period of policy making, as the House voted to go into a recess rather than adjourn. The full body is due to arrive for its regular session in January.
Both chambers finally adjourned sine die Nov. 17 at about 3 p.m, Pacific Time, after some raucous proceedings that groups such as the Idaho 97 — which opposes extremism in the Statehouse — described as a critical failure of the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation bloc.
Posting on Twitter after the adjournment Nov. 17, the group wrote: “And sine die. One IFF darling legislator censured and held accountable. 28 IFF/extremist bills defeated. @theidaho97 29 IFF 0. That’s how it’s done.”
Gathered in Boise beginning Nov. 15, legislators took up a raft of more than 30 bills, focused primarily on pushing back against COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates as they may affect workplaces and schools.
Most were shunted into committees that won’t meet until January — eliciting consternation among some hard-right lawmakers such ast Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who became so angered that she couldn’t handle her microphone and the Idaho Public Television live stream cut off audio Nov. 15 amid “boos” and shouts from the gallery.
Yet, in what a number of longtime Capitol watchers agreed was an early-session litmus test for GOPers, the proceedings opened with a House floor session on whether to censure Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, as well as remove her from the House Human Resources Committee, which the body affirmed 49-19, with two lawmakers (both Republicans) abstaining.
Members of the Ethics Committee in August recommended Giddings face censure and committee removal for “conduct unbecoming” a legislator after posting links on her Facebook page and constituent email newsletter to a right-wing “Redoubt News” website article divulging the identity of a 19-year-old legislative intern who alleged she’d been raped by now-former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston.
Von Ehlinger resigned from the Legislature in the spring and in October prosecutors in Ada County charged him with two counts of felony rape, then he was taken into custody in Ada County after being summoned by the court from a long sojourn in Central America.
Giddings is an Air Force veteran and firebrand conservative who is seeking the lieutenant governor’s office against House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and former-Coeur d’Alene Republican Rep. Luke Malek in the May 2022 Republican primary. Von Ehlinger was a political ally of Giddings’ in District 6, and her troubles began following her defense of his behavior, which she performed at the latter’s own Ethics Committee hearing in the spring.
There, she told committee members first that she hadn’t shared material naming the teenaged intern; then that she hadn’t actually read the “article,” only shared it; then that she was within her rights to do so.
That prevarication triggered concerns among fellow lawmakers — both Republicans and Democrats — who brought the matter before the committee during the summer.
During Giddings’ hearings, which lasted several days and included more than a dozen witnesses delivering testimony, the legislator was alternately combative and evasive — a description she apparently relished in her Nov. 15 statements before the House, nodding to her Air Force training in tactics of evasion when “being questioned by an enemy,” she said.
As pointed out several times by committee members, Giddings had ample opportunity to answer to the complaints leveled against her — that she acted with “conduct unbecoming” a legislator by sharing the material that identified von Ehlinger’s accuser — but chose not to.
Giddings’ refusal to participate triggered a public process, whereas ethics complaints are typically handled behind closed doors among legislative colleagues.
Holding forth to House members Nov. 15, Giddings said her sharing of the so-called “news” article was an attempt to provide “both sides of the story” in service of “due process,” as she put it, presumably meaning von Ehlinger deserved some representation in the court of public opinion. Giddings even went so far as to frame her actions as in keeping with Biblical tenets and compared herself to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was murdered in 1945 by the Nazis for his opposition to the Third Reich’s genocidal policies.
“I would not have done anything differently. I think my intent was pure,” she said.
Lawmakers weren’t having it. Every member of the House Republican and Democratic leadership voted in favor of censuring Giddings, whose case had been overseen by Ethics Committee Chair Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, in August.
“If you lie, you lie. If you’re not truthful, you’re not truthful. And that’s really the crux of the issue,” said Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, during the Nov. 15 floor debate. “So yeah, I’m going to support the [Ethics Committee] report. I saw what happened.”
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, spoke forcefully in favor of Giddings, calling the 38-year-old veteran pilot, powerlifter and mother a “war hero” and going on for an extended period of time — “This is the caliber of the person that we’re throwing under the bus, in my opinion,” she said — ticking off Giddings’ many accomplishments, until Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, a lawyer and critic of Giddings, objected.
“Previous accomplishments, while impressive, aren’t relevant,” said Chaney, who earlier this year authored a complaint against the District 6 legislator alleging she broke the law by “doxxing” the 19-year-old intern, though that complaint was dismissed by the committee because it dealt with criminal matters outside the body’s purview.
Other hard right-wing legislators such as Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, cast aspersions on the Ethics Committee itself, suggesting it had been compromised by politics — specifically, the role played by Speaker Bedke, who he suggested it “appears” has “weaponized” the committee to go after political opponents.
He referred to Bedke as both “speaker” and “candidate,” drawing shouts of “boo” from the gallery.
“Cute, but continue,” Bedke said, not the first time he’d had to warn onlookers about unruly behavior.
“If there is another outburst like that we will clear the gallery,” he said.
Asked if this “special session” (which was actually a continuation of the House session) was “necessary,” Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, told the Reader in a text message late Nov. 15 that, “the short answer is this is not necessary.”
Woodward said that the gathering in Boise is redundant, given the nature of the anti-vaccine and testing mandate bills.
“The state of Idaho is already party to two lawsuits opposing the federal mandates. Legal questions must be answered in the court, which is where we are now,” he wrote. “I don’t see any reason for state legislation that creates a catch-22 situation for Idahoans. People shouldn’t have to choose between complying with either federal law or state law, but not complying with both because they are contradictory.”
Dixon told the Reader in a Nov. 8 email that his “hope for the final session of 2021 is that we will provide protections that allow personal medical information to remain confidential, prohibit discrimination based on medical choices, an enact legislation that will prevent Federal Government actions that go beyond the scope of constitutional authority.
“The past year and a half have been, Lord willing, unique for the Legislature. We have encountered situations that were unprecedented, and which exposed deficiencies in our state government structure. This exposure demanded more work be done than normal, and ongoing national pressures added to the need to continue legislative work in what was normally our interim,” he said.
“While the easy argument is to claim that we are moving towards a full-time Legislature, that is not the temperament of a clear majority of the currently elected representatives. Our model of the citizen Legislature is imperative to our republican system of government, and to proper representation throughout the state. A full-time Legislature would change the motivation of candidates, and the interests of those elected once in office.
“As a Legislature, we do need to be able to call ourselves back into session in order to fulfill our obligation of protecting the citizens of Idaho, but it should be a rare occurrence, and not move in the direction of a full-time Legislature.”
The Idaho Legislature will reconvene in January. Follow the action at iptv.org.
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