‘Liberty legislators’ not shy on hardball tactics

By William L. Spence, of the Lewiston Tribune 
Mar 18, 2021 

BOISE — Shoot the hostage.
That was the solution LAPD Officer Jack Traven came up with in the 1994 hit movie “Speed,” when asked how to stop a gunman from escaping with a victim in tow.
“Shoot the hostage,” said Traven, played by Keanu Reeves. “Take her out of the equation. Go for the good wound and he can’t get to the plane with her.”
His partner described that approach as “deeply nuts.” Nevertheless, it actually worked a few minutes later, when Traven shot his partner in the leg and foiled the gunman’s plan.
It may come as a surprise to some, but what passes for extreme and unorthodox behavior in the world of fiction is actually a time-honored practice in the world of politics.
Shooting the hostage — or at least threatening to shoot the hostage — occurs with some regularity at the Idaho Legislature. Rep. Priscilla Giddings, for example, recommended the tactic just last week, during the debate over Idaho Public Television’s 2022 appropriations bill.
Giddings, R-White Bird, wants to eliminate state funding for public television. She’s concerned about potential bias or partisanship in some of its news programs. She also alleges that the educational content seeks to indoctrinate young viewers in “social justice and critical race theory.”
Although none of the $2.7 million in taxpayer support for the organization goes toward programming — that’s all paid for by $6.2 million in grants and viewer donations — Giddings still urged lawmakers to reject the appropriation.
“If I can’t control the content, then maybe I need to get rid of this platform, which uses taxpayer money to support the content,” she said.
Giddings also noted that killing the budget doesn’t necessarily mean public television goes away. It just gives the Legislature more leverage.
“The bill would go back to (the joint budget committee), so there can be some bargaining,” she said. “We can talk about content, and how to manage these funds so taxpayer money doesn’t participate in this partisanship and critical race theory.”
In other words, killing the budget — i.e., shooting the hostage — is a negotiating tool. It’s a way to push for more favorable terms.
And it very nearly worked: The public television budget squeaked through the House on a 36-34 vote. Reps. Giddings; Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock; Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston; and Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston, all voted against the measure. Reps. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, and Brandon Mitchell, R-Moscow, both supported it.
Far-right conservatives, or “liberty legislators,” like Giddings have had a successful session, in part because of their willingness to use such hardball tactics. It enabled them to get hearings on a number of bills this year. Even if the legislation doesn’t advance, it gives them the opportunity to advocate for their beliefs.
None of this makes the group very popular, but popularity is overrated when you aren’t interested in compromise. The far right is playing the long game, and forcing other Republicans to take some difficult votes — actions that can be used against them in the primary — is how they hope to win.
Contrast that with the House Democratic caucus.
As of Wednesday, the caucus has “saved” at least nine agency budgets this session — meaning the appropriations only passed because the 12 House Democrats partnered with enough Republicans to keep them alive.
That presumably gives the party a fair amount of leverage: By threatening to withhold support on bills, Democrats could bargain for something in return. At a minimum, they might get hearings on some of their policy initiatives.
Quid pro quo: If Republican leaders want help keeping the train on the tracks, they need to give the minority a chance to have its voice heard.
To play that game, though, Democrats have to show they aren’t bluffing. They have to be willing to shoot the hostage.
That isn’t a mindset the caucus has fully embraced. And to be fair, they’ve tried it in the past, only to see it backfire. When upward of 25 percent of the House Republican caucus regularly votes to defund or underfund state government, threatening to kill budget bills isn’t a strategy for the faint of heart.
What makes this year a bit different, though, is that some of the bills Democrats saved are part of the governor’s “Building Idaho’s Future” infrastructure investment plan. That should give them an important ally in the fight.
For example, Democrats helped advance a $6 million supplemental request for the Department of Parks and Recreation to address the backlog of park maintenance and repair projects across the state. That bill passed the House 35-33.
They also supported a $964,000 appropriation for emergency equipment for the Idaho State Police. That measure passed 43-25. The governor hyped the investment in a Monday news release:
“While other places seek to defund the police, I’m proud to say Idaho defends the police,” he said. “I appreciate my partners in the Legislature ... for sharing my support.”
In addition to the Build Idaho bills, Democrats salvaged a $370 million Medicaid supplemental — which actually saves the state $36 million in general fund dollars — as well as a Division of Welfare appropriation for $24 million in federal child care assistance. Those bills passed 37-31 and 40-30, respectively.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said most Idahoan don’t recognize how critical Democrats are in preserving basic government services.
“We’ve been instrumental in keeping the state functioning,” she said.
No doubt the caucus can take some satisfaction in that — in being on the “right” side of votes, in being the adults in the room.
But the reality is, they’re taken for granted. They’re political wallflowers. It’s safe to ignore them because they don’t shoot hostages.
The liberty legislators? Nobody’s ignoring them.
Bill Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (208) 791-9168.

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

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  • Website: www.berch4idaho.com
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