State lawmakers return from COVID break, push controversial legislation
By Eric Valentine
Idaho lawmakers wasted no time getting back to business these past two weeks raising eyebrows with some of the bills that have both made headway and hit resistance at the state Capitol, which had been shut down last month due to a COVID outbreak among legislators. Lawmaking business resumed April 6 at noon, and since then several pieces of legislation have made headlines here and elsewhere.
What follows is a summary of some higher-profile, controversial matters before senators and representatives across the Gem State.
Technically, there are seven bills involving abortion currently circulating the two chambers. Some have gone under the radar, such as House Bill 302, which amends the Informed Consent Law to provide information specific to pregnant mothers whose fetus has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Studies indicate that the abortion rate for pre-born babies with Down Syndrome may be as high as 90%.
This bill would require the Department of Health and Welfare to provide mothers in such circumstances with information about the resources available, in both the public and private sectors, to help support a decision to choose life for her baby. It passed both chambers and has been sent to Gov. Brad Little awaiting an expected stamp of approval.
Less hidden were the bills both chambers proposed that abortion procedures would be prohibited when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, with the exceptions included for rape, incest, and life of the mother. Proponents say a detectable heartbeat is a key indicator, in law and medical practice alike, of the existence of life. Opponents say it’s grandstanding at best and government overreach at worst. That’s largely because this legislation is null and void unless the U.S. Supreme Court at some point upholds a restriction or ban on abortion by any federal appellate court.
Effective last week, thanks to approval in both chambers and signed into law by the governor, it is now legal to produce, process, and transport industrial hemp in the state. Industrial hemp was already legal in 49 states, two territories, and more than 40 tribal areas. This legislation will allow Idaho farmers the opportunity to produce industrial hemp if they so choose. And, it will prevent truckers from enduring felony drug charges for transporting it across Idaho. Two such cases in the Gem State made national headlines in recent years.
Also effective last week, you may be seeing less voter initiatives on your ballots in the future. That’s because a percentage of voters in all 35 districts must now sign petitions to put voter-inspired laws on the books. Opponents cried foul, noting that this effort only arose after voters passed initiatives in support of more progressive ideas, such as Medicaid expansion. Proponents claimed it was a more democratic approach since previously only 18 districts had to have the benchmark number of signatures.
State legislators and the governor agreed with proponents.
House Bill 52 currently sits in limbo with the Ways & Means Committee. The bill provides that an Idaho licensed mental health professional “shall not engage in the practice of conversion therapy on a patient or client younger than 18 years of age.” Conversion therapy covers any practice or treatment that seeks to change a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
It sounded efficient. Reduce the number of elections (such as ones in August) so that all elections can run more smoothly, which in theory might even increase the amount of voter participation and voter knowledge come November and May. That’s how bill sponsor Rep. Vito Barbieri (R-Dalton Gardens) had publicly defended House Bill 106.
It sent school district officials across the state reeling over the possibility it could get signed into law, meaning school districts would not be able to hold bond and levy elections immediately after their budget-setting sessions which take place in June and July.
For Blaine County School District, that was a big deal since a facilities levy vote is forthcoming. But now, it may not be. Thanks to federal COVID-19 funding, school board trustees are thinking of delaying the vote until March 2022.
Long story short, the bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.
The Idaho Firearm and Firearm Accessories and Components Protection Act (aka Senate Bill 1205) builds upon the existing Idaho law which prohibits local officials from being ordered to enforce federal actions contrary to the Idaho Constitution regarding firearms and firearm accessories. Depending on how one interprets amendments 2 and 10 of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article 1 Section 8 and other verbiage, this might violate federal law, some say.
The bill was introduced in the Senate just last week, where a committee gave it a so-called “Do Pass Recommendation.” It has been filed for an upcoming second reading.
Gov. Little announced last week he would veto House Bill 135 and Senate Bill 1136, the so-called “emergency powers bills” which were passed by legislators who wanted to ensure the separation and balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. The legislation would have ensured that all Idahoans have the right to work, provide for their families, and that they can contribute to the economy during an emergency disaster declaration. The legislation also sought to limit emergency disaster declarations to a maximum of 60 days unless extended under certain provisions. The legislation also clarified that the governor may not alter, adjust or suspend Idaho Code during a disaster declaration.
Former Governors C.L. “Butch” Otter, Jim Risch, Dirk Kempthorne and Phil Batt all provided statements of support for Little’s vetoes.
“The bills unnecessarily politicize the state’s emergency response efforts and jeopardize critical funding for local governments. The bills violate the separation of powers doctrine and are unconstitutional,” the Governor’s office said in a statement on its website.
Seven different pieces of legislation regarding vaccination are in play at the state level. For the most part, they seek to protect those who don’t want protection in the form of vaccines.
In a separate bill, House Bill 339, it’s all about not protecting people who’d like protection in the form of mandated mask wearing. The purpose of the legislation is to prohibit the state of Idaho, a political subdivision, or an officer of the state from mandating the usage of a face mask, face shield, or other face covering for the purpose of preventing or slowing the spread of a contagious or an infectious disease.
The House, which had the largest number of COVID-19 cases last month, passed the bill. It awaits the Senate.