BOISE -- As Idaho’s 65th Legislative Session nears adjournment sine die—“without a day”—meaning the end of the session, legislators are getting restless.
For a few weeks, legislation from the Idaho Senate and House has sparked controversy. This was especially seen this week regarding one bill that has generated overwhelming opposition.
Idahoans were already uneasy about Senate Bill 1159—a bill that would essentially make the voter initiative/referendum process more difficult.
“They are attacking Idaho’s Constitution, taking away the vote of Idahoans, and consolidating power from the top-down. This is a direct assault on a right of the people of Idaho that has existed for 100 years,” Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, said in a press release.
But the placement of the bill at the end of an agenda and the late notice gave the impression to the public that the chairwoman was attempting to discourage public discussion.
Senate State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Patti Ann Lodge, R-Huston, said in an interview that the timing of the agenda is just another “unfair criticism” she is facing.
“The public had plenty of time. I would say with the thousands of e-mails I got, that people were talking about it,” Lodge said.
However, House Minority Leader, Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, said during the Idaho Press Club Headliners Luncheon that the committee’s scheduling was intentional.
“You don’t put it on the agenda at 5 p.m. on Friday at the end of a long agenda on Monday morning and expect that no one is going to show up to testify…that’s not how you plan for a controversial bill,” Erpelding said.
At the public hearing on Monday morning, March 11, chairwoman Lodge attempted to close public debate when she indicated the rest of the people signed up to testify were all against S 1159. For Senate chairpersons, limiting testimony is not unusual and Lodge believed there was nothing different that could have been said.
“We were already an hour and a half past floor time…many times we will stop testimony. What else is there to say,” Lodge said in an interview.
President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said during the press club event that chairpersons should fairly limit testimony, especially near the end of session to keep meetings short.
“There’s a huge amount of stress going on right now, we plan on closing the committees down next Tuesday. They are trying to get as much done as they can…” Hill said.
Chairwomen Lodge decided to continue public testimony after a few committee members spoke up against her attempt to close debate. On Friday morning, March 15, approximately 55 people testified and there were still 18 people left at the committee’s adjournment.
This time, the committee closed debate and proceeded to a vote. The committee voted to hold the bill in committee and would be brought back at the discretion of chairwoman Lodge. If the bill gets enough support before sine die, most likely the bill will be back.
Hill also mentioned that Senate committee chairpersons use certain criteria to determine whether or not to hold hearings for legislation.
“One of the most important [criteria] is how popular is it in the committee…it’s pretty easy for a chairman to go around to the committee members and say, ‘are you for or against this bill.’ It’s the chairman’s responsible to take the heat…that’s part of their job,” Hill said in an interview.
This has created some conflict between the two houses, as Senate Judiciary & Rules Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, has yet to hold a public hearing for House Bill 99, the bill to remove mandatory minimum sentencing for trafficking of certain controlled substances.
Because of this, Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, attempted to hold S 1005, Senator Lakey’s human trafficking bill, in the House Judiciary, Rules & Administration Committee to send a message to the Senate.
“It’s time that we recognize in this government that both houses have equal bills,” Zollinger said during the hearing for S 1005.
S 1005 was ultimately sent to the House floor and passed unanimously.
Also happening at the Capitol, House Bill 249, a bill that would add sideboards such as work requirements to Medicaid eligibility, generated so much opposition at a public hearing that the committee’s chairman decided not to vote on the bill.
House Health & Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said in an interview, “It became apparent that there were things that needed to change in that bill [H 249]…The biggest thing is that nobody likes the bill, so it doesn’t have anywhere near the votes to come out of committee.”
Wood says that another bill with similar provisions is likely be proposed to the committee next week.
“That bill [H 249] is being rewritten and some changes are being made,” Wood said.
Cheyenna McCurry is a legislative intern with the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research in Boise, and a student in the University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media.