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Tuesday, February 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Otter laying groundwork for likely special session

Gov. Butch Otter addresses reporters on Thursday (Betsy Russell)
Gov. Butch Otter addresses reporters on Thursday (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter this morning declared Idaho’s legislative session “incomplete,” and indicated he’s laying the groundwork to call lawmakers back for a special session before mid-June to address a crisis they created in Idaho’s child-support enforcement system.

“I’m not prepared to stand up here today and tell you I’m going to call a special session, because I think there’s a lot of homework to do, in that if we were to have a special session, that we have a successful one,” Otter said. “It’s going to be a very deliberative … process through the stakeholders.”

The first step is sending out 155,000 letters to the 155,000 Idaho families now receiving child support payments from a non-custodial parent, warning them that within 60 days, all non-voluntary payments could end. That’s $174 million of the $205 million in child support payments Idaho Health and Welfare processes each year.

“They could stop getting their payments,” said Idaho Health and Welfare spokesman Tom Shanahan. “We’ll still be able to do receipting,” for those parents who are making child-support payments voluntarily. “We’re not going to be able to do enforcement. That’s where the real angst is.”

Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said, “To me, we have a human tragedy that we’re faced with.” He said, “These people will need to make significant adjustments in their daily lives if we are unable to transfer this money to their households.”

On the final day of this year’s legislative session, a House committee voted 9-8 to table crucial legislation conforming Idaho’s child support enforcement laws to federal requirements, including a 2007 international treaty. Opponents cited concerns about state sovereignty and the potential of Idaho having to comply with foreign orders issued under Sharia, or Islamic religious law, though state officials assured them those concerns were unfounded.

Late Tuesday, federal officials informed Idaho that it will lose $16 million in child support enforcement funds – two-thirds of the state’s child support enforcement budget – and lose access to the federal system it uses to enforce child support orders in 60 days, if the legislative decision isn’t reversed. The only way for that to happen is for Otter to call lawmakers back for a special session.

“This is law,” Otter said. “This is not something you can do with an executive order.”

Federal officials also informed Idaho that it stands to lose up to $30 million in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds, which pay for everything from cash assistance to poor families to child care assistance.

Otter said he’s not willing to do nothing. “That’s not even entered the discussion,” he said. “We are going to be engaged and we are going to do something.”

The governor added, “I think it’s important that we understand the consequences of doing nothing.”

Armstrong said, “We have 60 days to cure the situation.” He said, “We are greatly concerned at the unintended consequences of this action, and certainly look to the governor and the legislature to help us find an answer, find a cure, so we can then go back to doing the business of supporting families in Idaho.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “This issue is grave in nature, obviously, and we’re doing a lot of research at this point to measure the breadth and scope of it. I assume that we’ll act accordingly at some point.”

Bedke said, “I’m assuming that the members of that committee voted in good faith, and I’m assuming that when they are able to weigh all of the issues around it, that they will act accordingly.”

The nine House members who voted to “table” the bill – cutting off debate, and preventing it from being take up again without a two-thirds vote – were Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard; Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls; Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene; Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton; Lynn Luker, R-Boise; Thomas Dayley, R-Boise; Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls; Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth; and Ron Nate, R-Rexburg.

Hours after the vote, Cheatham told The Spokesman-Review, “We didn’t want to give up our sovereignty. We have $42 million coming to the state – it wasn’t worth risking our sovereignty to me.”

Scott said, “They’re trying to strong-arm the Idaho Legislature into adopting this code, this law. Basically they’re threatening us.”

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