March 2, 2021

Happenings at the Statehouse

Power plays

Much of the first half of session has centered around shifting power from the Governor to the Legislature, from health districts to the Legislature, from local government to the Legislature, and from voters to the Legislature. Noticing a pattern here?

Local control – Last week, the House passed H90, which would prohibit any county, city or town from changing the names of streets, parks or schools in their communities without the permission of the Legislature. I obtained an opinion from the Attorney General finding that the bill violates our State Constitution which does not allow the Legislature to control local issues such as naming local landmarks. In light of this there’s a good chance the Senate will hold the bill – we shall see.

Executive powers – Yesterday the House passed H135, which would significantly restrict the Governor’s ability to enact emergency policy. Under this bill, an emergency declaration would require legislative authority to last longer than 60 days, and the Governor could not take any action that would restrict employment. This caused me concern, as we have historically had numerous emergencies last longer than 60 days, and calling the Legislature back in all the time is costly. Moreover, many sensible precautions a governor might take during an emergency could have the result of restricting employment, and it is hard to predict what consequences this would have in terms of preventing needed action in future emergencies.

Ballot initiative rights – Ever since the voters of Idaho took it upon themselves to pass Medicaid expansion in 2018, we have seen a steady stream of legislative efforts to rein in voters’ ability to bring ballot initiatives. The latest is S1110 making its way through the Senate, which would require signatures from 6% of all registered voters in all 35 legislative districts to get a proposal on the ballot. This would likely effectively end citizen ballot initiatives in Idaho, as it is barely possible to get on the ballot with the current threshold of 18 districts and we have only seen one successful effort in the past 8 years. I worked hard to collect signatures for Medicaid expansion in 2018 – here’s me helping deliver boxes of signatures to the Secretary of State. I can attest that it took a Herculean effort by thousands of volunteers just to meet the 18-district standard; we wouldn’t have made it if we had to cover all 35 districts.

Tax bills

Yesterday H199 was introduced by House GOP leadership, which would implement a sales tax cut from 6% to 5.3% and a top margin income tax cut from 6.9% to 6.5%. By 2023 this proposal would reduce state revenue by $435 million per year. It would also eliminate the grocery tax credit, so some folks might see their tax on food increase while others would decrease depending on how much food they purchase.

This morning the Democrats introduced an alternative plan that would use some projected surplus revenue to finally fund full-day kindergarten, a long-standing recommendation most recently endorsed by the Governor’s 2019 K-12 Task Force. It would also allocate funds to remediation programs designed to address the substantial learning loss that children have experienced during COVID. Statewide reading scores have dropped 8-9% and alarming results are expected once other testing resumes, requiring substantial investment in after-school and summer programs to catch kids up. The proposal also includes residential property tax reductions, the use of impact fees on new development to pay for new school construction, and an increase to child tax credits.

Status of other bills I’m working on

– HCR6 seeks insurance coverage for medically necessary prescription formula for infants and children with serious conditions like Crohn’s disease and eosinophilic esophagitis. This has passed from Committee and will soon be heard on the House floor.

– S1069 requires the clerk to notify you if your absentee ballot is rejected for a signature mismatch or other technicality so that you still have a chance to vote. It has passed Committee and will soon get a Senate floor vote.

– H108 is the Sgt. Kitzhaber Medical Cannabis Act – it was introduced but still waiting to see if it will get a full hearing and vote.

– H189, the “Clean Slate Act,” would allow those with minor non-violent, non-sexual offenses who have been offense-free for at least 5 years to petition to seal their public record. This was introduced Monday and is awaiting a full hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

“HJR 4 Just Makes Sense” – by Rep. Ilana Rubel and Rep. Scott Bedke

The ballots submitted by the Republican speaker of the house and the Democratic leader of the house will probably look very different this year, but there is one spot where they will look the same. We are both voting “yes” on House Joint Resolution 4, and we encourage you to do the same.

The constitutional amendment HJR 4 might seem complicated, but it’s really a very simple change. Idaho has had 35 legislative districts since the 1990s, but our Constitution currently allows that number to be set as low as 30 districts. This is a census year, which means that next year a redistricting commission will meet to draw new lines for our congressional and legislative seats, and those lines will be in effect for the coming decade. HJR 4 simply fixes the number of districts at 35, eliminating the possibility that the number of districts will be reduced. Why is this a good idea? Because more legislative districts mean smaller districts, and that means Idaho’s people will have closer contact and easier access to their legislators.

We’d like to put to rest some of the fears and counter-arguments we’ve heard:

No. 1: “HJR 4 will lead to gerrymandering.” No. Idaho’s district lines will still be drawn by a balanced commission that must reach bipartisan agreement on any new map, as required by our Constitution.

No. 2: “HJR 4 will lead to unfair over-representation of some parts of Idaho.” No. The commission will still be required to draw districts that are equivalent in population, with minimal variance between districts. Nothing in HJR 4 would allow for unfair over-representation of urban versus rural areas, or north versus south versus east.

No. 3: “HJR 4 is a scheme by the Republicans/Democrats to disadvantage the Democrats/Republicans.” No. There is nothing partisan about HJR 4, and during the 2020 session, it passed with overwhelming support from legislators of both parties. It just keeps districts smaller so it’s easier for legislators to stay in touch with constituents.

No. 4: “There’s no urgency to act on this right now.” We disagree. District lines will be drawn in 2021. This 2020 election is our last bite at the apple before districts are set for 10 years. At 35 districts, there would be about 51,000 people per district. Without HJR 4, we could end up with 30 districts, with 60,000 people per district, a substantial increase that reduces access to representation. If that were to happen, we couldn’t fix it for a decade. The only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to pass HJR 4 now.

No. 5: “We don’t need to pass this because the commission would never choose to reduce the number of districts.” We’re not so sure of that. Moreover, It’s not necessarily up to the commission. Many maps are thrown out by courts, which could decide that the number of districts must be reduced to accommodate various criteria set in case law (e.g. you’re supposed to keep counties intact, keep communities of interest together, etc.). HJR 4 is the only real assurance that we won’t end up with reduced representation.

In short, there’s no Trojan horse that will be sprung on Idahoans if HJR 4 is approved by the voters. Idaho is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, adding 230,000 people since the last redistricting in 2011. We’d hate to see this larger population get fewer representatives than they have now. Our goal is simply to ensure that Idahoans are represented in the Legislature by elected representatives they can readily access — people who share their streets, neighborhoods and businesses. Setting the number of legislative districts at 35 will advance this goal. We hope you’ll join us in voting “yes” on HJR 4.

2/20/2019 – Partisan redistricting / gerrymandering bill (HJR2) sent back to committee after public outcry

HJR2, the bill that would have created a partisan redistricting process in Idaho in lieu of our current bipartisan system, was sent back to committee after substantial citizen outcry. Well done, citizens!

2/11/2019 – Republican gerrymandering bill (HJR2) speeding through legislature

The Gerrymandering bill (HJR2) is moving like greased lightning through the Legislature, and it’s critical that our citizens understand what is happening. In a nutshell, since Idahoans voted in 1994 to amend the Constitution to get rid of partisan gerrymandering, Idaho has had a bipartisan, evenly divided 6-member Redistricting Commission that draws district lines every 10 years. In order to be approved, a map must receive at least 4 votes, so all redistricting must have bipartisan agreement. We have thus been immune for the past 25 years from the bitter partisan gerrymandering battles that have plagued other states. But perhaps no longer.

On Friday, with barely one day’s notice of the hearing, HJR2 passed on a straight party line vote in the House State Affairs Committee. This bill would add a 7th member to the Commission to be selected by GOP elected leaders, creating a 4-3 GOP advantage and allowing the GOP complete control over redistricting. Democrats on the Committee objected to a matter of such importance being rammed through so quickly, and walked out in protest – here’s a helpful article summarizing the proceedings.

2/8/2019 – Article: “Tempers fray in Idaho House in battle over redistricting”

  • Article Link: “Tempers fray in Idaho House in battle over redistricting”
  • Excerpt: There are days when the Idaho Legislature resembles a much-higher-stakes three-ring circus, and Friday was one of them, as a bitter dispute over a GOP attempt to engineer a Republican majority on Idaho’s bipartisan Redistricting Commission led to a walkout, a breakdown in procedures on the House floor and fraying tempers all around.