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A far-right push to leapfrog House tradition rubs most the wrong way

The dome of the Idaho Statehouse at sunset with an American flag and Idaho flag.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

The Idaho House has spent hours arguing over written – and unwritten – rules this session that shape how the legislature actually runs.

At issue is if certain lawmakers should essentially have veto power over whether a bill is introduced or if it’s given a public hearing.

If you’ve tuned in to the House over the past month, you’ve probably heard how this year’s internal fight for power is shaping up.

“Gentleman from [District 34], for what purpose do you stand?” asked House Speaker Scott Bedke on a recent day in March.

Rep. Ron Nate (R-Rexburg) replied, “To give the families of Idaho $300 million of tax relief. Let’s call up the grocery tax repeal, House Bill 448.”

Nate and other far-right lawmakers have been trying for weeks to bypass a tradition in the House. If you can’t get a committee chair to give your bill a hearing at the beginning of the legislative session, you can still introduce it as what’s called a personal bill.

But custom dictates personal bills are sent to the House Ways and Means Committee where they will wither and die.

That fate doesn’t sit well with Nate.

“The process is eliminating the voice of Idahoans all across this state,” he said during a February floor debate.

During his passionate speech, Nate blasted committees for holding bills in desk drawers.

“How many committee agendas have one or two bills on them? How many committees meet for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes? There is plenty of time to consider far more bills than are being considered.”

So, at the beginning of most days, he and others repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – try a rarely used rule that allows a bill to leapfrog the committee process and go straight to the floor if it gets enough votes.

The early days of their crusade saw lengthy debates. Most lawmakers disagreed with the far-right’s tactics, and exchanges sometimes got chippy.

“Those who introduce personal bills, myself included, do so conceding the bill will not get a hearing,” said Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell), a committee chair himself.

Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard), one of Nate’s allies, objected to that statement, to which Chaney replied, “And I object to the constant interruption by those who don’t like what’s being said in a debate.”

Scott has criticized House leadership for years for not allowing her bill criminalizing all abortions to advance in the legislature.

Other committee chairs also spoke out against efforts to bypass the traditional process.

“It is a public charade that is being played on the House floor every day,” said Rep. Brent Crane (R-Nampa) – a longtime legislator and chair of the House State Affairs Committee – during an interview in March.

Day 2 Aaron von Ehlinger ethics trial Brent Crane
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
Rep. Brent Crane (R-Nampa), left, on the second day of an ethics hearing into Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, right. A 19-year-old intern accused von Ehlinger of raping her in March.

Crane is a stickler for the rules and runs his committee with the precision of a Swiss watch. He views his role as chairman as one of keeping the legislative skids greased, sometimes by being a hurdle for bills.

“The committee on bad ideas is open every day, so you have to in order to make sure that your work is done efficiently and it’s prioritized and you’re done quickly, you do have to filter out some of that.”

Crane said part of his duty is considering whether a bill has enough committee support to get to the floor and whether it could be used as a wedge issue against someone in an election.

“Sometimes, there has to be an adult in the room who says, ‘No. It’s just not going to work,’” he said.

He said he also helps guide lawmakers who come to him with an idea to get support, if not consensus, from interest groups and other stakeholders.

This kind of “strong committee” setup, where a chairperson holds significant power, is common in state legislatures, and for good reason, said Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at UC San Diego.

“This is where bills really get studied, analyzed often by professional consultants where you have witnesses on both sides presenting their cases,” said Kousser. “There’s real deliberation going on for them.”

There are a handful of states where every proposal is required to get a public hearing, like Colorado and Delaware.

Colorado Capitol building in Denver
F Delventhal
A view of the Colorado Capitol in 2009.

In 1988, 72% of Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment to do just that. Part of the amendment’s original intent was to prevent the Republican majority at the timefrom stifling Democratic proposals in a complex series of committees.

But Colorado lawmakers, regardless of who’s in power, have figured out a way around that requirement.

The legislature there has a specific “kill committee” to which the speaker of the House can assign bills. They still get a hearing, in compliance with the state’s constitution, but ultimately die by the hands of committee members who come from safe, strongly partisan districts.

Another factor in these states being able to consider more bills, Kousser said, is that their legislative sessions run longer than Idaho’s typical three months.

Idaho lawmakers routinely brag about being a part-time, citizen-led legislature, but that comes with trade-offs.

“If you give every bill the right to get heard in committee, well, you just will have less time for each bill, less scrutiny and the committees won’t be able to do their jobs,” Kousser said.

And that’s exactly how Crane sees it, along with another potential side effect.

“The minute you open it up and say every bill is going to get heard, you are going to increase government regulation,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”

It would increase government regulation, Crane said, because most bills add to state laws instead of repealing them.

These days, Nate and others still try to petition their bills out of committee.

Rep. Paul Amador (R-Coeur d’Alene), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, where personal bills go to die, noted the group has made more than 30 attempts.

Amador recently even tried to make light of his job as a legislative executioner by following another tradition: lawmakers offer up limericks toward the end of session,whether on account of boredom, sleep deprivation or the belief that it will speed up their exit from Boise, when they ask the clerk not to read the full text of every bill.

“My desk drawer can always fit another bill, but haven’t we already had our fill? You know that I like to be excused, but I’m beginning to feel a little abused. Let’s cease the reading to prevent a standstill,” said Amador.

While the limerick got a few laughs, it also earned an objection from Scott, who forced the bill up for debate to be read at length. In fact, she’s objected several times this year to waiving the final reading of bills.

But instead of spending a significant amount of time each day in debate, House Republican leaders have used their procedural moves to quickly close discussion and move on.

Just a handful of lawmakers support upending the traditional legislative process as evidenced by wildly lopsided, daily votes. Instead, many more say they see it as a political stunt that’ll soon show up in campaign ads before the May primary – something Nate and his allies deny.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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