Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Child's play

This is my second “catch up” newsletter covering selected bills that were voted on in the House of Representatives from March 1st through 10th.  There was an awful lot that happened in the House during these 1 days (accent on “awful”). However, the narrative below covers observations from just the last few days. It would be funny if it wasn’t so disappointing and sad.
As always, please feel free to contact me anytime for any reason. My contact information appears at the end of this newsletter.


"Quit whining"

I’m not naïve. I’m pragmatic. I’m a realist. I know that politics can be rough; that it is a blood sport for some. And I understand the analogy between making laws and making sausage. I get it.
Despite these realities, I hoped that professionalism wouldn’t give way to pettiness; that critical thinking would share space with ideology; that listening would be valued as much as talking; that we could be adults through it all – or at least act like one.
I still hold onto that hope, but it sure took a hit this week.  Here’s just a sampling of what I witnessed from my seat in the back row of the House Chamber.

Take SCR117 and HCR51. These are simple, benign resolutions that recognize the 50th anniversary of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). The first one (SCR117) failed in the House when a representative complained during floor debate that one paragraph might be interpreted as supporting federal lands in Idaho (reflecting a prevailing hatred of the federal government). The “offending” paragraph was removed and a new version of the resolution was reintroduced (HCR51). It also failed because someone else didn’t like the way the sponsor debated a previous bill – and the member who originally asked that the paragraph be removed still voted against it. The resolution honoring the SNRA – one of the most treasured public amenities in Idaho – was killed due to ideological extremism and personal spite.
Then there was the reading of bills. Bills are required to be read by the Chief Clerk before being voted upon. However, it is customary for the bill sponsor to request unanimous consent of the full House to forego the reading of the bill (to save time). If any member objects, the bill must be read in its entirety. It is common courtesy to not object – except this week. One member continually objected, forcing multiple bills to be read (some many pages long) apparently out of anger for not having a question answered and a Quixotic protest over the subject matter of certain bills.
There is a lounge area behind the House Chamber with snacks and a TV. During some lengthy debates, several representatives curiously left the chamber for extended periods of time. It turns out they were watching the NCAA basketball tournament while bills were being debated and voted on. Talk about March Madness, not to mention a dereliction of duty.
All week (and several preceding weeks), two representatives continually abused a parliamentary procedure in an attempt to force the same two bills to be brought to the floor for a vote over the continuous objection of most all members of the House. They have done this over 30 times (and counting). It became apparent that this act of petulance by these two representative served the added purpose of playing to the camera in a Pyrrhic attempt at gaining notoriety.
Perhaps the most stunning, offensive and revealing incident took place on March 18. After lengthy bi-partisan debate against a bill that would politicize the judiciary, the bill’s sponsor (the Majority Leader) became irritated at people daring to publicly disagree with him. He chastised the dissenters at the end of the debate by angrily demanding, “quit whining and vote for the bill." To dismiss intelligent, cogent opposition as “whining” is not only unprofessional and an insult to one’s fellow colleagues, but it revealed an arrogance of power and a lack of maturity and self-control.
It was a sad, fitting end to a week of child-like behavior from people who should know better.



Rotunda Roundup

The bills below are summarized under: Education, Elections, Taxes, Housing, COVID-related and Other.

Establish support for provision regarding certain dyslexia interventions (H731 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill provides the tools and training for teachers to detect and assist students who have dyslexia. This is a great bill that not only demonstrates the good things government can do when it wants to, but takes significant strides toward improving literacy among students truly in need of care and consideration. I was proud to vote FOR this bill, which passed unanimously in the House.

Eliminate all current education teaching standards in math, English and science (HCR39) and replace them with new standards (H716) developed by a workgroup last summer. (HCR39 passed the House and Senate – does not require the Governor’s signature; H716 – passed the House, in the Senate).
These two pieces of legislation are the culmination of a multi-year effort to politicize education under the rallying cry to “get rid of Common Core.” The joke on voters is that in reality, it simply renames Common Core as the Idaho Content Standards. Long-time observers of this political war may recall that nearly all Idaho teachers were opposed to dropping Common Core. So why were education stakeholder groups now in favor of these “new” Idaho Content Standards? It’s because they actually aren’t substantially different from Common Core. While advocates will claim this to be a major overhaul, the fact is that most of the changes were semantic changes in wording (e.g. “climate variability” instead of “climate change”). 
Despite this lack of real change, I voted AGAINST both pieces of legislation because the process used to create them will further politicize education. It injects politicians directly into the standards-setting process. It was particularly troubling to learn that the State Board of Education was deliberately excluded from the working group that wrote the news standards. This is yet another small step by a legislature intent on usurping responsibilities from the executive branch.

Protect free speech in higher education (H684 – passed the House, in the Senate). This is a terrible bill with a great title. Who’s against “free speech?” Not me. So why did I vote AGAINST this bill? Because it’s not about free speech; it’s about imposing penalties on universities and any of their employees to intimidate them from discussing anything that might be deemed controversial. Furthermore, there is no need for this bill. The sponsor was aware of only four complaints at one university in the last two years.
This bill goes further. It purports to protect members of the “campus community” which is defined to include a group simply seeking official recognition – even if they haven’t yet received it. For example, this bill will allow students affiliated with a neo-Nazi group to seek recognition and then post white supremacy flyers on campus before their request for recognition is decided. This happened on the Boise State University campus and the university removed the flyers. This bill would prevent BSU from removing those flyers and be sued for doing so.
Some legislators claim this bill is needed to make sure conservative voices are not suppressed on campus. I asked the sponsor for quantitative evidence to that affect, but none was provided. I support free speech, but this bill is so broadly written and so punitive that it creates a chilling effect that could likely intimidate others into not exercising their right to free speech.
CLICK HERE to watch my debate against this bill in the House Education committee.

Force all substitute teachers to be tested for drugs (H651 – failed on the House floor). This bill is an example of trying to connect two dots that can’t be connected. Its purpose was to stop the selling of drugs in public schools by forcing all substitute teachers – and only substitute teachers – to undergo periodic drug tests. Beyond the insulting assumption that substitute teachers sell drugs to kids, it’s ridiculous to think that a drug dealer would choose substitute teaching as a lucrative path toward that pursuit. I voted AGAINST this bill where it barely died by a 31-38 vote.

Allow private parental driver’s education (H683 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill allows parents to teach their children how to drive without requiring any certification in driver education instruction. This bill has appeal in more rural counties where the roads are less crowded and certified driver education instructors may not be readily available. However, this one-size-fits-all approach creates very real safety issues on busy suburban and urban roadways. In addition to not requiring the parent to be a certified instructor, the vehicle does not need to be equipped with a dual brake pedal for emergency stops, and it is not required to display a “student driver” sign. I voted AGAINST this bill in consideration of the danger this would create in my district, which is bordered by three of the busiest roads in Idaho: Chinden Boulevard, Eagle Road and Interstate 84.

Require Idaho WWAMI students to refund the state if they don’t stay in Idaho (H718 – passed the House, in the Senate). WWAMI is the UW School of Medicine’s multi-state medical education program (WWAMI stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho). This bill requires Idaho students who enroll in WWAMI (or the University of Utah School of Medicine) to sign a contract stipulating that they will repay any public funding, unless they are actively engaged in professional practice in Idaho for four years. I voted AGAINST this Draconian bill that constrains your child’s ability to pursue a medical career that best meets their personal needs. Not every investment the state makes in our children’s future should be subject to an individual ROI. However, I did vote FOR HCR38, which encourages Idaho to invest in more WWAMI slots for Idaho students.

“Hope and Opportunity” scholarship program (H669 – died in House Education committee).  I have always supported school choice. What I don’t support is gutting public education to pay for someone else's choice. This bill would give eligible parents $5,950 per child to pay for private and religious school tuition. The sponsor claimed that only 1% of parents would choose to participate in this program, diverting an estimated $12.7 million from public education to fund this program. In reality, the real potential financial impact over time could shift over $1.2 billion away from public school funding. This bill serves as the gateway to privatizing education at the cost of starving and irreparably damaging public education in Idaho. I voted AGAINST this bill, which was killed in committee by a slim 8-7 vote.
CLICK HERE to watch my debate against this bill in committee.

Prohibit the ability to fill certain school board trustee positions by appointment (H671 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill would prevent a school board vacancy from being filled by appointment if the vacancy occurs within 120 days (four months) before a scheduled election. If the vacancy occurs earlier than that, an appointment would only last until the next election instead of completing the term of the vacant position (which is common practice). Leaving a vacancy open for four months can render an equally divided school board with an even number of members incapable of taking necessary actions in a timely manner. I voted AGAINST the legislature dictating how local school board should conduct their affairs. It is yet another example of the legislature making clear they do not trust local government.

Prohibit the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots (H693 – passed the House, in the Senate). This is a voter suppression bill, pure and simple. It is based on fear-mongering without a shred of evidence that absentee ballot drop boxes are being used for voter fraud in Idaho. This will make it far more difficult for voters to cast their absentee ballot, especially if they need to do so within days of Election Day. I voted AGAINST this un-American attempt to make it more difficult for people to have their voice heard and their votes counted. It passed in the House by a slim 37-33 margin. Hopefully it will die a well-deserved death in the Senate.

Make lists of dead people public (H694 – passed the House, in the Senate). This is another voter suppression bill in disguise. Here is the Statement of Purpose that accompanies this bill:  “This legislation would allow the public to examine the listing of Idaho residents who have passed away to help ensure the deceased are removed from the election register. Currently the Secretary of State and the Department of Health and Welfare do not allow the lists of who has died to become a public record which makes it impossible to validate voter registration information.”
First of all, it is absolutely possible to validate voter registration information. That’s what election officials do year-round. In effect, this bill says the legislature doesn’t trust the Secretary of State to do its job, so it’s going to turn the job over to citizens who are afraid that dead people may be voting (of which there is zero evidence in Idaho). Worse, it invites some citizens to falsely claim – mistakenly or knowingly – that someone is dead who isn’t. This will create a huge burden on limited resources to research each claim.  I voted AGAINST this unnecessary bill based on a false premise that could target selected groups of individuals for voter suppression.

Elect community college board of trustees by district (H738 – passed the House, in the Senate). Trustees for community colleges are currently voted at-large. Every eligible citizen gets to vote for each member on the board of trustees. This bill reduces voter involvement from choosing 2-3 trustees every two years, to one trustee every four years.
Districting may make more sense for a large city where the city council votes on a broad range of issues.  However, when it comes to electing people focused on one thing such as overseeing a single institution, voters are best served by people with the best expertise – regardless as to where they live within the overall voting district. This bill limits the available pool of qualified, talented individuals who can serve on a board of trustees.  I voted AGAINST this bill which is in search of a problem to solve.

Establish a County and City Property Tax Relief Fund (H690 – passed the House, in the Senate). If the state has a surplus at the end of a fiscal year, this bill would move up to $80 million from the general fund into a special fund for counties and cities to use specifically for property tax relief. I normally vote against bills that shift money in the general fund away from education and other vital state services. However, I try to balance that long term view with short term urgencies. I voted FOR this bill because it addresses a short term need and it expires on July 1, 2026.

Dedicate 50% of new year-over-year tax revenue increases to property tax relief (H648 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill inhibits local governments from making necessary investments in infrastructure and services needed to cope with sudden and rapid growth. Furthermore, it freezes a constraining funding policy in perpetuity in reaction to an immediate situation. I voted AGAINST this dangerously simplistic approach toward addressing the complex problem of providing lasting property tax relief. Bills addressing complex issues need to have more thought and substance put to them beyond a politically convenient title.

Create a sales tax exemption for certain semiconductor projects (H678 – passed the House and Senate, to the Governor). This bill presented some challenges for me. Frequent readers of my newsletters know that I am generally opposed to sales tax breaks. That opposition is conditioned on the inability to demonstrate that the tax break is a net long-term benefit to the citizens of Idaho, and not a gift to the recipient.
This bill primarily benefits Micron, which is deciding where to locate a major manufacturing facility. One argument for this bill is that Idaho needs to provide tax breaks in order to compete with other states. That is not a sufficient reason. The fiscal note of this bill projects that the loss of sales tax revenue will be more than off-set by revenue due to sustained incremental employment created by a new facility. I reluctantly voted FOR this bill based on that assessment.
I am reluctant because Micron has received an estimated $1 billion in property tax breaks over the years, yet subsequently moved manufacturing operations to Virginia and other locations. If Micron takes advantage of this tax break and doesn’t meet their the promise of sustained incremental employment, I will advocate rescinding it. My hope and expectation is that such action will not be warranted.

Provide consumer protection for renters (H730 – failed on the House floor). This bill provided tenants with significant renter protections by prohibiting landlords or their management companies from:

  • Making undue profit on application fees.
  • Collecting and retaining an application fee when no rental property is available for lease.
  • Collecting and retaining an application fee when there is no intention to consider the applicant for a rental property.
  • Failing to return an application fee within 48 hours after requested by the applicant if no screening took place.
  • Retaining application fees from an applicant who was never screened.

I voted FOR this fair and reasonable bill that is much needed in a severely imbalanced housing market where desperate renters have few options and are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

Establish a Workforce Housing Fund (H701 – passed the House, in the Senate).  This bill creates a fund into which $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) State Fiscal Recovery Funds can be deposited should the legislature agree to accept the money. I voted FOR this bill, which is a necessary first step in receiving funds that can help alleviate the unaffordable housing crisis in Idaho.

Homeowners Association Act (H703 – passed the House, in the Senate). There is a vast inconsistency as to how HOAs manage their affairs, often to the detriment of homeowners. The purpose of this bill is to require HOAs to manage their affairs in accordance with their bylaws. Each HOA still retains their own unique Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs). This bill helps ensure that the rules of an HOA’s governance are followed. I voted FOR this bill which helps bring order to a chaotic landscape of HOAs in Idaho that one testifier likened to The Wild West.

Issue no-cost identification cards for the homeless (S1268 – signed into law).  This new law establishes a no-fee 4-year identification card for an individual who is homeless. The previous $15 fee was a barrier to both job and housing attainment by persons experiencing homelessness. I voted FOR this bill which helps some of our most vulnerable fellow citizens.

Prevent any future coronavirus vaccination requirements for state government workers (H708 – passed the House, in the Senate).  This anti-vaccination bill protects the rights of state workers without any regard for the citizens they come in contact with – no matter how deadly a new virus or mutated variant may be. Some government workers visit immune-compromised citizens in their home, such as wellness checks. This bill would allow an unvaccinated state worker to enter that home against the wishes of the resident – or even have knowledge if that worker is unvaccinated. I voted AGAINST this bill (as I have against several other similar bills) on the principle that the law must balance the rights of the individual with the rights of the community – not favor one at the expense of the other.

Enable employees to sue employers who don’t accept any religious exemption for being vaccinated (H719 – passed the House, in the Senate). This bill inserts the heavy hand of government into the running of private businesses by enabling them to be intimidated with lawsuits and financial penalties. It adds the threat of litigation to the arsenal of those who believe the rights of any one individual is greater than the rights of a business owner to protect the health and safety of their employees – no matter how deadly a future virus or mutated variant may be. I voted AGAINST this short-sighted, punitive and intrusive attempt by state government to control the private sector.

Prosecute librarians if certain books are available for dissemination in public libraries (H666 – passed the House, being held in the Senate). This bill allows any employee of a library, college, university or museum to be sued and potentially thrown in jail if someone accuses them of disseminating material they personally think is pornographic. The problem with this bill isn’t that many lawsuits will be filed. The problem is that it creates the real threat of being sued, fined and jailed. It has a chilling effect that encourages the sanitizing of content (words and images) in these public institutions. This is essentially a form of state-enabled censorship. It allows the most aggressively prudish members of a community to use the law to impose their standards for morality and decency on everyone else.  I voted AGAINST this bill that attempts to build a bridge to a mythical version of America as portrayed in 1950’s sitcoms.
CLICK HERE to watch some of the debate on this bill (I appear at the 1:27 mark)

Makes it a crime to provide certain medical treatments for minors with gender dysphoria (H675 – passed the House, held in the Senate). This bill bans gender reassignment surgery and the use of certain medications for anyone under the age of 18. It denies parents the ability to make choices for their child and would turn doctors into criminals for using established treatments supported by the medical profession. Not a single person who voted against this bill is a medical doctor, yet they continually talk and act as if they are when the House is in session. I voted AGAINST this bill supported by too many legislators who are quick to criticize what they don’t understand or have never personally encountered.

Withhold publication of the mugshots of mentally ill individuals (H620 – passed the House, held in Senate committee). This bill applies to individuals who are detained for a mental hold at a hospital to receive medical care for a mental illness. The sponsor of the bill gave a moving account of her best friend (a successful, capable person) who had a mental episode that resulted in her mugshot being published. She lost her job and subsequently committed suicide. I voted FOR this bill which passed unanimously in the House, but is now being held in a Senate committee.

Remove the Attorney General (AG) from the Idaho Constitutional Defense Council (H665 – passed the House, in the Senate). The purpose of the Defense Council is “restoring, maintaining and advancing the sovereignty and authority over issues that affect this state and the well-being of its citizens.” Current law designates Council membership to be the governor, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the AG. This bill appears to be an act of revenge due to House leadership not liking some of the AG’s opinions on the constitutionality of legislation it has recently passed. I voted AGAINST this fit of pique more befitting a high school student council.

Definition of personhood (H720 – passed the House, in the Senate). If I had a nickel for every constituent who asked me to write a law like this, I wouldn’t have five cents to my name. This bill ensures that inanimate objects such as toasters and non-human animals such as snails “shall not be granted personhood in the state of Idaho.”  I voted AGAINST this silly bill that seems to be motivated more by paranoia than a need to solve a real problem.


In the hopper

I’m still catching up on a backlog of bills to report. This section will be updated when I’m caught up – if the session isn’t over by then.