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News >  ID Government

Eye on Boise: Public opinion and the ‘representational disconnect’

UPDATED: Sun., April 25, 2021

By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – The rift between public opinion in Idaho and the actions of the Legislature and governor this year has been remarkable. Perhaps most notable has been SB 1110, the bill to make it much harder to qualify a voter initiative for the Idaho ballot.

A week ago, Idahoans were waiting anxiously to see what Gov. Brad Little would do with the bill after it had passed both houses with some bipartisan opposition; he’d vetoed legislation on the same topic two years earlier. So I filed a public records request to see how the calls, letters and emails to the governor’s office were running.

Early last week, I received the rather stunning response: The governor’s office, in the two weeks prior to Little’s decision to sign the bill into law, received 2,200 emails, 2,150 of those asking him to veto it, and 50 asking him to sign it. In the same time period, there were 4,100 calls on SB 1110, 4,000 asking for a veto and 100 calling for a signature. Thirty letters also were received; all 30 called for a veto.

That’s 6,330 citizen contacts, 97.6% of them calling for a veto.

During public hearings on the bill this year, testimony ran strongly against it. At the House committee hearing on March 8, 97 people signed up to testify. Before the committee ran out of time, it had taken comments from seven in favor of the bill and 16 against; committees typically alternate public testimony between “pro” and “con.” At the Senate’s two-day hearing on the bill Feb. 19, 44 people from all over the state testified, nine for, 34 against, and one both for and against.

Former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones, also a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, delivered petitions with 16,000 signatures from Idahoans asking the governor to veto the bill. Major questions have been raised about whether the bill effectively invalidates Idahoans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to initiative, and a court challenge already is in the works.

In the Boise State University Public Policy Survey released in January 2020, respondents across the state were asked about the state’s initiative process. A substantial majority, 63.4%, said it was “about right.” Seventeen percent called it “too difficult,” and just 10.2% thought it was “too easy.”

So why would the Legislature and governor enact something that appears to be widely opposed by the public?

Boise State University political scientist Jeffrey Lyons, who studies public opinion and survey research at BSU’s School of Public Service, said several factors are at play. Among them: People who contact elected officials and speak out on public issues are those who “are upset and who have strong opinions,” as opposed to the population as a whole.

Yet the statewide survey showed a disinclination among the public to change the state’s initiative process; and the last successful voter initiative, on Medicaid expansion, passed statewide by a margin of more than 60%.

Lyons said in general, elected officials may discount the public comments they receive as not representative of the smaller base they need to appeal to for re-election. “They essentially, when they get this kind of feedback, they write it off as, ‘This is a small minority of angry people who maybe likely aren’t my voters anyway,’” he said. “I do think there is this electoral calculation that goes on.

“This is important in states like Idaho where we do have such one-party control,” Lyons added. “You could say the same for a state like California in the other direction. People know the road to getting elected and what that looks like. The real concern is the primary elections. In so many parts of the state, the real election is the primary election. And we know that those primary electorates can really be different folks.”

The BSU Public Policy Survey each year asks Idahoans what their priorities are. Education, over and over again, is at the top of the list. Taxes don’t tend to rank high. But, he said, “We do tend to see, that’s one of the top conversations at the Legislature every year is taxes.”

The Idaho House on Friday passed the latest version of a giant $382.9 million income tax cut bill, HB 380, that largely benefits the wealthy, including removing $162.9 million from the state general fund each year into the future. Lawmakers this year also considered a bill to fund optional full-day kindergarten for every Idaho school district, HB 331, at a cost to the general fund of up to $42.1 million a year. But that bill didn’t advance.

If the permanent income tax cut were reduced by a quarter, the state could fund both – relieving property taxpayers now paying for full-day kindergarten through supplemental property tax levies, and mending a patchwork across the state that leaves some families with access to public full-day kindergarten, but not others. It could still fund a $120.8 million permanent income tax cut, perhaps cutting the top rate for individual and corporate income taxpayers from 6.925% to 6.6% instead of 6.5%. But that’s not been considered.

Transportation funding typically ranks low as a priority in the BSU survey, Lyons said, though it’s a much higher priority in the Treasure Valley over concerns about congestion and traffic. That’s been a top priority for lawmakers this year, with a major transportation funding bill now pending in the Senate.

Public opinion both across the country and in Idaho strongly favors legalization of medical marijuana, Lyons noted, yet that hasn’t prompted legislative action.

“I think it just comes down to there are some things where you end up with this representational disconnect,” he said, “where people are thinking about practical, pragmatic concerns about re-election.”

As for the call and email breakdown from the governor’s office on SB 1110, Lyons said, “The magnitude surprises me a little bit. … That’s pretty overwhelming.”

Gary Moncrief, BSU political scientist emeritus, told the Senate State Affairs Committee in February, “There is an issue in American politics, in states in particular, with the creation of legislative supermajorities.” Idaho’s supermajority Republican Party holds 82% of the seats in the Legislature, much higher than the number of Idahoans who vote for the party in elections. In the November 2016 general election, for example, Republican Donald Trump won 63.8% of Idaho votes.

“This is true in almost all states,” Moncrief said, with the party that has the legislative majority over-represented compared to the electorate. “Supermajority parties occasionally misunderstand or misinterpret public opinion because they’re so large that’s all they hear.” He said that’s why citizens’ powers of initiative and referendum are so important.

What brought Moncrief to the Statehouse: He was testifying against SB 1110.

‘Political suicide’

Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, says he’s changed his mind on his commitment to support the new version of the early learning grant bill when it comes back. Shepherd had announced he’d support it when it came back after drawing widespread criticism for his comments during the debate in which the House killed the bill authorizing acceptance of the $6 million grant from the Trump Administration, in which Shepherd expressed concern about mothers working outside the home; he later apologized to the House for those comments and said he didn’t mean to insult working mothers.

Shepherd, a first-term representative, said, “I learned, being new at this game, that you don’t prematurely commit to anything and don’t make promises that are from a personal standpoint, and not based on the overall wants of your constituents. My statements I made … triggered a barrage of feedback from my constituents, and they overwhelmingly do not want me to support the legislation. They do not like the federal government being involved in the curriculum of our children in any way, good or bad.”

However, the new version of the grant bill, SB 1193, includes specific “intent language” added by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to make sure that doesn’t happen. The intent language, which has the force of law, ties strings to the state’s acceptance of the $6 million grant, saying, “Moneys appropriated in Section 1 of this act for the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five Renewal shall not be used to dictate curricula for use by local collaboratives.” The local collaboratives themselves will make any decisions about curriculum. That was the plan before, but the bill makes it a legal requirement.

Shepherd acknowledged the bill has changed and concerns raised in the earlier debate that accepting the grant would somehow enable indoctrination of young children on “critical race theory” and “social justice” have been addressed, but said his constituents don’t know that. “And if I cannot educate them on what the bill actually does in time, at this point it’s almost political suicide for me to support the bill,” he said.

SB 1193 could come up for a final vote at any time.

Citing “the political atmosphere out there right now,” Shepherd said, “I wish they could figure out some way to direct that funding in a completely different way, through a different channel, so I could guarantee my constituents” their curriculum concerns had been addressed. he said. “I really am going to be very unpopular with some of the people out there that want and need this money, but my first and most important obligation is to the people that elected me and put me in office.”The $6 million grant is actually a continuation and expansion of a program that’s been coordinating early-learning collaboratives around the state, which have decided on their own local priorities for enhancing early learning, from a kindergarten-readiness push in Kuna to a business-led effort to regain lost child-care capacity in Valley County to an immensely popular “Read-Talk-Play Every Day” initiative aimed at families of preschool children in American Falls.

The grant, authorized by the Trump Administration, has strong support from Idaho’s business community, its two GOP U.S. senators, and the State Board of Education, along with participants in 15 local collaboratives around the state.

The session will end … when?

A new concurrent resolution introduced Friday would allow this year’s legislative session to recess until a date no later than Sept. 1, without adjourning.

Lawmakers would technically stay in session, but would forgo their per diem payments for expenses.

House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, said, “This is potentially a ticket out of here.”

Friday was the 103rd day of this year’s legislative session.

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