A House divided . . .

Many constituents have been asking me variations of the same question, “Why does the Idaho House of Representatives seem so dysfunctional?”
 
It’s because we now have three political parties in the House: “Freedom” Republicans, the more traditional (GOP) Republicans, and Democrats, with the two Republican factions often consumed by internal power struggles. 
 
The “Freedom” Republicans are wary of government and believe it prevents people from exercising their God-given freedoms. Taxation is viewed as theft. Words like liberty, freedom, tyranny, and patriot are prominently deployed, along with holding an unyielding interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Being the smaller of the two factions, they are the tail trying to wag the dog.  They’d like to be the dog.
 
The GOP Republicans are still the majority of the majority party, spread out along the rest of the conservative spectrum. The more moderate ones are under constant threat by outside forces aligned with the “Freedom” faction. The pressure on them to cast votes based on a more extreme ideology is enormous.  I asked one of the moderates last year why he voted for a bill that I knew he didn’t support. He looked at me, looked down, looked back up and whispered, “I want to get re-elected.”  It wasn’t enough.  He was still targeted by these outside groups and lost his primary election two months later. Other moderate Republicans took note. This is how self-preservation gets in the way of good government.
 
And then there are the Democrats. They are more moderate than many assume and often vote in a bipartisan manner. Only a handful of the over 300 bills voted on in the House each year break strictly along party lines. As one conservative from California recently told me, “As a California Republican, I think I’m more like an Idaho Democrat.”
 
The divide within the Republican Party goes even further. Not only are the two factions fighting with each other for internal control of their caucus, but nearly all of them are united in fighting with the Republican Governor to take over some of his power and authority. They’re even fighting with the Republican Attorney General.  Many of the bills we’ve seen this year are focused on winning these intra-party wars.
 
This is why important things aren’t getting done. When legislators fight to preserve and grow their own political power, constituent priorities are often the casualty. Issues you’d like the legislature to fix get ignored or pushed aside:

  • Constant school bonds and levies to fund education.
  • Inadequate and crumbling transportation infrastructure.
  • Low wages, higher property taxes and unaffordable housing.
  • Insufficient healthcare, especially mental health services.
  • Protecting access to public lands blocked by out-of-state billionaires.

 
You can’t tell the players without a scorecard
 
One way to tell who’s who is to watch the vote boards. Here’s an example of a recent vote in the House to fund Idaho Public TV – H283 (Sesame Street, Idaho Outdoors, live coverage of the Legislature, Idaho Reports, etc.).  The 12 Democrats were joined by 24 GOP Republicans to barely save Public TV. But about 20 other GOP Republicans joined the “Freedom” Republicans to defund Public TV, in part due to pressure from outside extremist groups and to protect their right flank come next year’s primary election.

Voting patterns over time will tend to reveal where the legislators align within this three-party system. One consequence of this dynamic is that Democrats have more influence over certain outcomes.  The 12 Democrats (18% of the House membership) wound up saving Public TV.  In fact, there has been an unusual number of bills decided by one or two votes this year so far. Just a handful of legislators have been the difference between a bill passing or failing – another outcome of a three-party system.
 
Sometimes the tail can wag the dog.

 

Rotunda Roundup

There’s not much good news to report in the way of bills that address the issues that impact Idahoans the most. However, the session isn’t over and there’s hope that maybe some good, meaningful legislation will come before us. Maybe.
 

Education
 
Take money away from public schools if they don’t provide in-person instruction (H293 – passed the House, died in Senate committee).  This bill is legislative blackmail. It is perhaps one of the worst education bills to ever be introduced in the Idaho legislature. It tells every school district that if they refuse to keep classrooms open under any circumstance (including a future, more deadly pandemic), the school district must give parents money that can then be spent on private and religious schools – a form of voucher system. Most disturbing is how this bill was “sold” to the legislature. The sponsor repeatedly said, “This bill is about the kids.” Not once did the sponsor express any concern for the health and safety of teachers, school staff or their loved ones. School is not just about the kids; it’s about the kids, teachers, and staff.  Without all of them, there is no school. I voted against this bill that violates the principle of local control and leverages a tragic public health crisis to advance other political agendas.

Allow all school boards to give teachers a take-it-or-leave-it contract (H174 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill has a “simple” one-word change.  It now says all school districts “may” choose to negotiate salary and benefits with teachers instead of the current law stating they “shall” negotiate with teachers.  This “simple” change hurts every teacher in every school district.  School boards will be able to simply hand teachers a take-it-or-leave-it contract, which they may feel forced to do if the legislature continues underfunding them and voters don’t pass the bonds necessary to close the gap. I asked the sponsor of this bill to name one school district in Idaho that pays teachers more than they deserve. She couldn’t name any (of course) – proving that the current law was already delivering fair and balanced teacher contracts throughout the state. The only reason to propose this bill is to enable lowering teacher salaries – which are already non-competitive with surrounding states. I voted against this mean-spirited bill. 

Continue Idaho’s participation in the Powerball lottery (H72 – killed in House committee). The Powerball lottery contributes over $14 million to public education each year. The House State Affairs committee killed this bill because . . . wait for it . . . they were afraid that a portion of a $2.00 lottery ticket might go to a foreign country that has some form of gun control. It is beyond idiotic to take $14+ million away from public education because of what some country halfway around the globe might do. This action will force Idaho school districts to continue floating school bonds each year to cover the funding shortfall – and further increase your property taxes. Please be careful who you vote for next November.

Allow Strong Student Scholarship public money to pay for private school tuition (H294 – passed the House, in the Senate). This is a voucher bill, pure and simple.  This scholarship program was designed to help qualified families with education expenses that would supplement the education of their child enrolled in a public school. Now, it allows nearly $5 million in on-going Idaho taxpayer dollars to give an estimated 800 students approximately $6,041 annually to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. An additional $30 million in one-time federal dollars can also be used for this purpose. I believe in the conservative principle of individual responsibility. If you want to send your child to a private school, that is your choice – and you should be responsible by paying for your choice with your money. Don’t ask your neighbor to help pay for it with their taxpayer dollars.  I voted against this bill.

Change participation in sex education from opt-out to opt-in (H249 – passed the House, in the Senate). Today every student takes sex education unless they opt-out. This bill results in no one taking sex education unless parents opt-in their child. This guarantees that fewer children will take sex education.  The current sex education opt-out rate is about 2% - clearly the exception.  It defies common sense to implement a process that makes the exception the rule – unless your goal is to make sure fewer children take sex education. The consequences of this bill will be a proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases, more unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, and ultimately more abortions. This is yet another education issue that not a single constituent has told me is a concern or a priority. I voted against this illogical and dangerous bill.

Force school districts to allow concealed weapons in all public schools (H122 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill allows any school staff member (teacher, cafeteria worker etc.) who has had only 8 hours of training and passed a written test to now carry a concealed gun into any public school. It was opposed by nearly every law enforcement and school board organization. It violates the principle of local control by requiring every locally elected school board to allow this, regardless of what they or parents want. Since the bill also says that the person carrying the concealed weapon is under no obligation to use it should a circumstance arise, this bill doesn’t really help make schools safer anyway. I voted against this bill.

High school credit for non-school activities (H172 – passed the House, in the Senate).  This deceptively innocent-sounding bill winds up lowering requirements for graduating high school and undermines the state’s ability to provide a uniform education system.  It allows school districts to award school credit for activities a student would have done anyway as part of their normal life: Weekly hunting trips? Soccer team? Community service? Swim lessons?  The reason each activity is followed by a question mark is because the bill provides no guidance as to what type of activity would qualify for school credit – it is up to the discretion of each school board. Extra-curricular activities in a child’s life should not be used to reduce the required learning they should receive in a classroom setting. I voted against this bill.

Allow school boards to voluntarily participate in the state’s health insurance plan (H248 – passed the House, died in Senate committee). This creative, well-researched bill allows teachers and staff to be covered by the state’s health insurance plan if their local school board chooses to participate. However, the premiums would be higher than what the state offers other employees and teachers would have to give up one rung on the career ladder for one year. The result is that participating in this plan may cost teachers in the short run but may save them money in the long run – but this calculation could vary by school district, making it very attractive for some and not as attractive to others. This was the best offering that had a chance of becoming law, but unfortunately it died in the Senate and will not happen this year. I voted for this bill since school district participation was voluntary and it did help secure a quality health insurance plan for teachers and staff.


Failed appropriations bills
Funding the functions of state government is a constitutional responsibility of the legislature. Voting down an appropriations bill reveals the disdain majority party leadership has for other branches of state government – and sometimes at the expense of their own constituents.
 
Appropriation to fund early childhood education (H226 – failed on House floor). This bill would have provided $6 million in federal grant money to fund community-based early childhood education development programs. In a mind-numbing display of fearmongering, self-righteousness and disgraceful ad hominem attacks on specific private citizens, the House killed an opportunity to have some of the tax dollars we sent to Washington come back to Idaho and help our kids. During the debate, multiple legislators stood up presenting conspiracy theories, conjecture, and flat-out falsehoods. This money would have helped improve childhood literacy in Idaho. I voted for this valuable bill.

Appropriation for the CAT fund – catastrophic healthcare program (S1081 – passed in Senate, failed on House floor). This bill provided a $6 million supplemental appropriation for the Catastrophic Health Care Program to cover the estimated cost of claims that remain in FY 2021. The House voted to not protect the families dealing with crushing catastrophic medical events.  I believe in individual responsibility. I also believe that government plays a rightful role in helping people who are truly in need and trying to cope with situations beyond their individual control. That's what a civilized society does. It takes a special brand of callousness to vote against this bill, which would help people across the political spectrum. I voted for this bill.

Appropriation for the Idaho State Attorney General’s office (H271 – failed on House floor). File this one under “Hissy Fit of the Day.” The House refused to approve a standard annual appropriations bill that funds the Attorney General’s office. The majority party gets upset when the Attorney General issues legal opinions that don’t provide a rubber-stamp approval of their bills.  A new appropriation bill will be submitted and one will eventually have to pass. I do not support this infantile behavior and voted for the bill.


Other bills
 
Data Security Act (H147 – passed committee, failed on House Floor).  This carefully crafted regulation bill, which surprisingly had broad industry support, would have established important new data security standards for the insurance industry in Idaho where none currently exist. In particular, it addressed privacy concerns associated with cybersecurity practices – a much needed form of consumer protection in the face of increased cybercrime that steals people’s identity. This bill failed on the House floor mostly for reasons I cited in my narrative earlier. Some legislators see any form of government regulation as an infringement on “freedom.”  Once it reached the House floor for a vote, an outside organization posted information on their website that threatened to hurt any legislator who voted for this bill. I voted for this bill.

Targeted picketing (H195 – failed on House floor). This bill would have not allowed demonstrations in front of a person’s private residence that were being conducted with the intent to harass, harm, or alarm the targeted individual and/or other occupants. Some people were concerned that this bill threatened their right of free speech. Let me state clearly that I support the First Amendment. I support all the amendments in the Bill of Rights. I also believe that no right is absolute.  For example:

  • You have freedom of speech but can’t endanger the public by shouting “fire” in a movie theatre.
  • You have the right to bear arms, but you can’t shoot at targets with live ammunition in a public park.
  • You have freedom of religion, but you can’t practice human sacrifice as part of your beliefs.
  • And while not an enumerated right, you have a right to a certain degree of privacy in your home, but you can’t cook meth in the basement.

The common denominator here is that the boundary between your rights as an individual and the rights of others is when the exercising of your rights impedes the rights or freedoms of another person. That is why we have laws; to define the constraints and boundaries on our rights as individuals.  Citizens have a vast array of options for exercising free speech. What this bill did was put a reasonable constraint on that right when it’s used to deliberately target individuals for intimidation, a right not guaranteed by the Constitution. This was another bill that an outside organization threatened to hurt any legislator who voted for it. I voted for it.

Award licenses to all apprentices (H178 – passed the House, in the Senate). This sweeping bill does away with all licensing requirements for anyone who has completed an applicable apprenticeship program. Prior to this bill, the legislature approved two similar moves, one for barbers and one for cosmetologists. This bill went from absolving two trades to all licensed trades in one fell swoop, without any detail or analysis. I could not vote for this bill without having a better understanding of the negative consequences it might cause, especially its potential impact on consumer protection.

Protect renter security deposits (H152 – passed the House, in the Senate).  This consumer protection bill requires that security deposits for rentals managed by a third-party manager be held in a separate account at a federally insured financial institute.  It prevents a renter’s security deposit from being stolen by an unscrupulous management company. I voted for this bill which passed by a slim margin (37-31-2). The narrative above helps explain why some would vote against this bill that helps consumers, simply because it is a form of government regulation. 

Legalize medical cannabis (H108 – died in House committee). This is the Sgt. Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act, named after one of my District 15 constituents.  This bill legalizes secure and controlled access to doctor-prescribed medical cannabis in small, individual medicinal doses. It is similar to ability you have today to walk out of a drug store with a bottle of heroin (i.e. morphine, which is processed heroin). Although the bill was introduced in committee and approved for printing, it was denied a full public hearing and a committee vote because there was a lack of certainty that it would pass the full house. I disagree with that decision. Some bills should be allowed to advance each step of the way, one step at a time, without a guarantee as to a future outcome. This is one of those bills – legislators need to be given the chance to understand and consider the pros and cons of a bill that may be controversial.  I hope that my constituent for whom this bill is named (who has Stage 4 cancer) will be with us next year to help give this bill the due consideration it deserves.

 

In the hopper

S1110. This is a near-repeat of the bill Governor Little vetoed in 2019 that would effectively nullify every Idahoan’s constitutional right to place a citizen-driven initiative on the ballot – like the one that enacted Medicaid expansion.

S1088. This bill provides for more transparency in a rental process by having landlords detail any fees in a lease agreement and give 30-day notice to renters before being charged.

S1089. This bill repeals a section of Idaho code relating to the rape of a spouse, which had previously acted as an exception for the crime.

SJR102. This Joint Resolution is a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the Idaho Legislature to call itself into special session whenever 60% of the members of each house want to.

H332. This bill will provide significant tax cuts, mostly to corporations and the wealthy.

H331. This bill enables full-day kindergarten in public schools (it appears to be stalled in committee).

 

C:\Users\STEVEB~1\AppData\Local\Temp\msohtmlclip1\01\clip_image001.jpg

 

ABOUT STEVE BERCH

Steve represents District 15, House Seat 15A. He is a member of the Education, Business, Local Government committees, and JLOC. How to contact Steve:

  • Contribute: CLICK HERE
  • Website: www.berch4idaho.com
  • Phone (cell): 208-890-9339
  • Phone (Capitol): 208-332-1039
  • Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Best websites for following the legislature

 

C:\Users\STEVEB~1\AppData\Local\Temp\msohtmlclip1\01\clip_image002.jpg

 
 

 

On The Air

2021

  • March 12 - KBOI interview (Kasper and Chris)
  • March 5 - Boise State Public Radio (Sex-ed opt-in). Click Here
  • February 10 - KTVB-TV (absentee ballot voter suppression). Click Here.
  • January 22 - KBOI interview (Kasper and Chris). 

2020

  • March 19 - BYU-Idaho interview. Click Here.
  • March 6 - KBOI interview.  Click Here.
  • February 27 - BYU-Idaho radio interview on education and sales tax exemptions. Click here.
  • February 13 - Capital Update interview on the House abolishing education standards.  Click here.
  • January 10 - KBOI interview (with Rep. Megan Blanksma).  Click here.
 

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.