BOISE – A session notable for its turmoil and unusual procedural maneuvers took another turn Wednesday, as conservative House Republicans tried to force a floor vote on a liberal Democrat’s bill – and were stymied, in part, by Democrats.
The action began when Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, tried to call a bill out of the House Ways and Means Committee. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, would force a committee hearing on any proposal with five Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors.
Nate said the measure is needed because leadership and committee chairmen may abuse their discretion to bottle up bills they don’t like, even when those bills enjoy broad support. For example, a proposal to repeal Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax on food has 48 co-sponsors – including a majority of the Republican caucus in the House and Senate – yet it can’t get an introductory hearing because it’s not supported by Republican leadership.
“This is a representative government,” Nate said. “The system is supposed to work from the bottom up. When constituents come to legislators with their ideas, we write them up and bring them here. We expect committees to consider, debate and vote on those bills. The way it works now, committee chairmen can hold a bill and we never have a proper debate. That thwarts the representative process.”
If a bill is trapped in committee, House rules give lawmakers the option to call it directly to the floor, bypassing the committee process entirely.
The maneuver is essentially a “Hail Mary” play that is attempted maybe once per session, usually when the minority party wants to bring attention to an issue. However, Mike Nugent with the Legislative Services Office said that since he started working at the Statehouse in 1978, he can’t recall a single time when the effort was successful.
During a lengthy debate Wednesday, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said bypassing the committee process is a bad idea.
“If you all want total anarchy, then go down this road,” he said.
Rubel noted that her bill doesn’t get rid of the committee process; it simply provides an opening for bipartisan bills to be considered.
Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said the current process gives committee chairmen the power to ignore the concerns of Idaho citizens.
“I believe what we’re doing is silencing the voice of our citizens,” she said. “By holding bills and not allowing debate, we’re silencing 44,000 citizens per (legislative) district.”
Democrats historically have shared these concerns, at times going so far as to hold independent hearings to make sure people have an opportunity to testify on issues that lack legislative support.
Despite this, nine of 11 House Democrats joined in the 57-13 vote to defeat Nate’s effort Wednesday – including Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and Plummer Rep. Paulette Jordan, who was a co-sponsor of Rubel’s bill.
“When I was elected, I swore an oath to the Constitution and agreed to abide by the rules of the House,” Jordan said after the vote. “When bills are brought forward and not heard, it stifles our voices. The intent of (Rubel’s) bill was to ensure they get a hearing, but my vote today was to support the rules.”
Nate’s effort was clearly within the rules. Nevertheless, Jordan said, pulling a bill out of committee directly to the House floor isn’t part of the normal process.
“I respect the process, whether I agree with it or not,” she said.
Erpelding suggested Nate’s effort had more to do with the far right’s ongoing dispute with House Republican leaders than it did with a desire to advance bipartisan legislation.
“It was about their (far-right) bills not being heard,” he said.
Erpelding noted that the minority caucus has been “extremely successful” in getting its legislation considered this session. And while 10 Democratic bills currently are languishing in the Ways and Means Committee, he said Rubel’s bill wouldn’t help them because they’re “partisan bills” that lack bipartisan support.
The Democratic bills in Ways and Means include an “Add the Words” proposal to provide anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians, as well as Erpelding’s own bill to increase Idaho’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2019.
Democrats have suggested for years that these are nonpartisan issues that enjoy broad support across the state, and which are only being stymied because tone-deaf Republican leaders refuse to listen to the public.
Nate said if Democrats can’t support his effort to force a vote on Rubel’s bill “they have no reason to complain about the committee process not working for them.”
North-central Idaho lawmakers split their votes Wednesday. Reps. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, and Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, supported Nate’s call. Reps. Jordan, Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, and Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, opposed the effort.
Kingsley later asked to change his vote, but Scott objected so the request was denied.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.