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Friday, October 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

House panel backs new, scaled-back version of FBI background check bill that died amid charges of ‘federal bullying’

The House Commerce Committee voted unanimously this afternoon to introduce and send to the full House a scaled-down version of FBI background check legislation from the Idaho Department of Labor that the House killed on Monday, when Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, decried it as “an example of federal bullying.” “This is a new bill, but it’s replacing a similar bill with broader language than we understood would be accepted,” Labor Director Ken Edmunds told the panel.

The original bill, HB 164, would have allowed the department to run fingerprint-based FBI background checks on any employee, intern, volunteer or prospective employee. It was driven by an IRS requirement that any employee who has access to confidential federal tax return information pass such a check. The department currently has 26 employees who have access to that data as part of the Treasury Offset Program, which goes after unemployment overpayments that occur through fraud or misrepresentation by putting a hold on the taxpayer’s income tax refund.

Participation in that offset program is mandatory for all states; since 2013, Idaho has recovered $9.5 million in overpayments.  Failure to comply with the background-check requirement by next November could potentially jeopardize millions in federal funding that Idaho receives to administer its unemployment benefit program; last year, Idaho received $13.8 million. 

Edmunds told the representatives that the new version of the bill just covers fingerprinting those 26 employees. If more need the checks later – including potentially 400 employees at the state Tax Commission – Edmunds said agencies would have to come back to state lawmakers. The new version of the bill also eliminates clauses absolving the department of liability.

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, told Edmunds, “Thank you for bringing this up again, because there were a lot of concerns initially. … I know you need to get the 26 people fingerprinted. I don’t have a problem with that at all.” She said she was concerned that the original bill included a “machine,” funded by a federal grant, for fingerprinting. “It was just what are we looking at with this machine … who’s going to be in charge of it,” she said.

Edmunds responded, “For now, there is no machine.” Instead of purchasing the equipment, he said, the department will work with the Idaho State Police, which has its own fingerprinting equipment. The Tax Commission will “probably come before you the next session,” he said, on the equipment.

Scott said, “Mr. Edmunds, my question, it maybe seems odd, but I come from a very conservative district. And the questions I’m going to get from my citizens is going to be why would the Department of Labor come with such a huge request, and then settle for something so small. Can you give me some idea why that initial bill was even presented to the Legislature, if it was really not necessary?”

Edmunds said, “We didn’t want to come to the well too many times, and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got another five people here,’” so the department proposed “a more generic broad-stroke bill to do that. Unfortunately, that was not well received. … For now we’re limiting it this way because you made the request and it meets the minimum requirements that we have to do now, vs. trying to be more broad-brush.”

Commerce Chairman Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said his intention if the bill were introduced was to hold a hearing on Friday afternoon, a time when the committee doesn’t normally meet. But the committee voted to both introduce the bill and send it to the full House today. “We have heard this bill over and over again both here in the committee and on the floor, and I believe that in good faith they have worked hard to bring back a bill that can be supported by the House,” said Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon.

Scott said, “I agree. I’m very delighted, I guess, that you’ve come back with something I think we could all live with, and I appreciate the time you took with it – and I don’t think anyone wants to be here on Friday.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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