January 22, 2010 in Idaho

Idaho Human Rights panel finds lifeline

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Pam Parks, director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, addresses legislative budget writers as the commission faces a proposal to phase out its state funding. Parks said the commission is looking for ways to reorganize and possibly move under the state Department of Labor.
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BOISE - Facing a proposal from Gov. Butch Otter to phase out all its state funding over the next four years, the Idaho Human Rights Commission announced Friday it’s in talks with the state Department of Labor to join forces.

“We recognize the state is up against some very difficult budget challenges,” Pam Parks, the commission’s director, told legislative budget writers Friday.

State labor officials said they’ve identified two possible funding sources in their department that could make up the commission’s lost state funding. “We’ve looked through all our spending priorities and tried to rearrange things,” said John McAllister, chief deputy director at Labor, which receives no state general tax funds. “We think we can handle it for the next four years.”

Dozens of human rights leaders from around the state, including two former governors and all the former directors of the commission, sent an open letter to lawmakers this week opposing the elimination of the state funding for the commission.

“We implore the members of the Idaho Legislature to resist any initiative to reduce the effectiveness of the Commission, to diminish its already scarce resources and to send the most unwelcome and damaging message that Idaho has ceased to place human rights at the absolute forefront of the state’s priorities,” the letter said. “We need not remind Idaho state government that it was not that many years ago that Idaho’s image and reputation was unfairly sullied by the presence in our midst of messengers of hate and ministers of discord.”

Tony Stewart, a founding member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations and one of those who signed the letter, said the announcement about Labor “appears to be good news.”

“It’s very important the commission continue to have the same kind of independence it’s had,” he said, and Stewart said the new arrangement at Labor must allow for that. He added, “It appears to me the wonderful outpouring of support, that message has been heard.”

Parks said when lawmakers 41 years ago passed the Idaho Human Rights Act, which the commission enforces, “Idaho made a clear and strong declaration that we will not tolerate discrimination.” She noted that the state’s reputation has suffered from the activities of racists. “Recently we are seeing a resurgence of ugly acts in our beautiful state,” she said. “This is not a time that we can back off our resolve.”

Stewart said since May of last year, the Inland Northwest has seen eight documented hate crimes, and such incidents are on the rise nationwide. “We need to have the commission be as active as ever,” he said.

The commission mediates discrimination claims in the state, often finding solutions before the cases end up in court; in other cases, the commission files court cases to enforce the law.

Parks described a case of severe workplace racial discrimination; a case in which a teen girl was sexually harassed by her boss; and a case in which a person in a wheelchair was denied a job because employer said there was no space for the wheelchair - in that case, the commission helped the business find ways that the wheelchair could be accommodated.

“Our budget has always been very lean,” Parks told lawmakers. “We have learned how to do a lot more with less as we have seen our workload double in the past 20 years, while the staff has not.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said both lawmakers and the governor are committed “to continue the important work of the Human Rights Commission, especially in light of the continued problems that we all deal with in racism and discrimination.”

Parks said other states including Texas and New Mexico have their human rights commissions in their departments of labor. The Department of Labor enforces Idaho’s workplace laws, while the Human Rights Commission investigates civil rights violations, like discrimination on the job.

“There are a lot of different overlaps,” she said. “We think that our missions are very similar.”

Her agency, which handled 512 new discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2009, gets nearly $600,000 from the state general fund. Otter wants to give it $396,000 in fiscal year 2011 as he begins to phase out state funding.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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