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Idaho wage garnishment bill doesn’t reach Senate floor

BOISE – Legislation to remove Idaho lawmakers’ special exemption from having their wages garnished has fallen victim to hostilities between the House and Senate.

A Senate committee chairman refused to schedule a hearing on the bill until a House committee heard his own bill addressing occupational cancer among firefighters.

That means both bills proposed this year to remove special privileges for Idaho lawmakers have failed after passing the House and dying in the same Senate committee.

“Sure sounds like a pattern, doesn’t it?” said freshman Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, sponsor of the wage-garnishment bill. The other bill would have taken away lawmakers’ exemption from concealed gun permit requirements.

Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, has refused to schedule a hearing on the garnishment bill until a House committee sets a hearing on his bill regarding firefighters’ occupational cancers. But that Senate-passed bill isn’t going to get a hearing in the House Commerce Committee, according to that panel’s chairman, Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls.

Hartgen is adamant that the firefighter bill is good public policy. It would recognize certain cancers linked to breathing hazardous substances common in burning buildings as occupational diseases under Idaho’s workers’ compensation system. Firefighters have been pushing for the change for years. Now, they must prove the cancer was caused by the work; under the bill, that would be the presumption.

Hartgen said he believes the bill would give professional firefighters “another benefit stream” that could be very costly, and would open the door to similar requests from part-time firefighters and other first responders.

“I know it’s dangerous work – they do put their lives on the line,” he said. “But we compensate them well, they have excellent retirement benefits, they often have second jobs, and no one forces you to become a fireman. … I just think on the basis of fairness and potential cost, that this is a bill that needs more work.”

McKenzie said of the wage-garnishment bill: “This particular bill is the one that is still in my committee. It’s the means that I have to express my frustration over that.”

Hartgen replied: “I think that’s unfortunate, that we are playing politics with these different bills. I would urge the good senator to hear the bill on its own merits.”

The firefighters bill, Senate Bill 1373A, passed the Senate last week on a 28-7 vote. The garnishment bill, House Bill 510, passed the House Feb. 26 on a 65-2 vote.

One of the two “no” votes came from North Idaho Rep. Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, who later asked the House to convene an ethics investigation into her vote, because she failed to reveal a conflict of interest as required by House rules. McMillan faces numerous court judgments, including at least one in which garnishment of her legislative wages was blocked by the special exemption.

Morse called the demise of his wage-garnishment bill “an attempt to thwart reform.” The exemption has been on the books in Idaho since 1939. “I think there’s overwhelming support for changes, among the voters, to revoke privileges that politicians have granted themselves,” Morse said. “We can make these changes readily at the state level, if individuals like Sen. McKenzie don’t block it.”