It’s summer, but lawmakers are in mid-winter form

by Chuck Malloy
| July 27, 2020 11:38 AM

During this month, the Hallmark channel has been showing sappy Christmas movies, giving people a dose of feel-good television viewing during these difficult times. Christmas in July is a little strange, but it’s a nice touch.

Not to be outdone, Idaho lawmakers are giving us the Legislature in July – complete with the political posturing and partisan wrangling that we normally see during the winter months. There is nothing “feel good” about what they are doing.

A group of 15 Republicans kicked off things early this summer with what can be described as a “Legislators Lives Matter” rally on the House floor, with participants calling out Gov. Brad Little for his handling (or bumbling) of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Democrats held a news conference outlining an ambitious legislative agenda – a ritual that usually comes on the session’s opening day in January.

What’s going on around here?

As House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel of Boise explains, Democrats are putting their ideas on the table just in case there is a full-blown special session at some point this summer. She’s seeing “working groups” operating aggressively – almost as if the Legislature was in session. So in Rubel’s view, it’s timely for Democrats to take stands on various issues, while taking some shots at the Legislature’s Republican majority.

As you might expect, the reception from Republicans was as frosty as a Gem State winter blast.

“Accusing us of not doing our duty and ignoring issues is not true. We can’t take action if the Legislature is not in session,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder of Boise. “I think the Legislature is doing what it can without our working groups and interim committees, and the governor has done a good job managing the financial side.”

On education, he said, “We’re just trying to figure out how to get through this, and in a responsible way – helping kids learn and protecting everyone’s health and safety. To say that nothing is being done is disingenuous.”

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, was surprised that Democrats presented their agenda on a day when the state affairs working group had one central focus – election laws, and whether Idaho should have exclusive absentee voting in the fall election.

“Democrats are part of this working group and they participate in the discussions, as they do in regular committee meetings. There are other working groups focused on education, tax policy and rules – with Democrats and Republicans,” Souza said. “They are trying to imply that Republicans are not addressing these issues, and of course we are. This is not the time to bicker, point fingers or make the other side look bad. We need to come together as a whole Legislature and move forward in the best way for the people of Idaho – and not play the divisive game.”

According to Rubel, Democrats had no say in the planning of these summer meetings But they have plenty of ideas on issues and harsh assessments about the state of education. Rubel and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum agree that a $100 million cut to public schools is unacceptable.

Idaho has a rainy-day fund to cover for emergencies, “and it’s raining,” says Rubel. “When it’s needed, then use it. It shouldn’t be hoarded until the end of time. There is nearly $600 million in the rainy-day fund, so we do not have to cut education.”

Rubel says the fact that Idaho is ranked dead last among the 50 states and District of Columbia in per-pupil spending illustrates the urgency to take care of education.

“There is this perception that we have no choice, times are tough, we all have to tighten our belts and there is no alternative,” Rubel said. “We all want to change that narrative and point out there are a lot of things that can be done.”

And it appears that Idaho’s “part-time” legislators are preparing to use the summer months, and perhaps beyond, exploring options. As for the rest of us, maybe we should put away the backyard grill, dig through the attic for yuletide decorations and check out a few of those sappy Christmas movies as an escape from the politics.

Anyone up for building a snowman?

Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com