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Legislature resumes after two-week COVID break

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | April 7, 2021 1:00 AM

After COVID-19 forced lawmakers into a two-week hiatus, the Idaho Legislature reconvened Tuesday with impassioned speeches and controversial issues coming to the House and Senate floors.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back,” Rep. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, greeted before quickly pivoting into a fiery speech on the House floor. “If you’re not already, wake up!”

Adams launched into a verbal attack critiquing prospects — real or imagined — of vaccine passports and indoctrinating Idaho’s youth as he warned against breaching the state’s dams and spending funds borrowed against future generations before issuing a harrowing call.

“Now is the time to push back, to lay claim to our sovereignty as a state and to the sovereignty of every citizen,” Adams said. “I am confident that if it takes, as Jefferson said, the watering of the tree with the blood of every tyrant from sea to shining sea, then so be it.”

Gov. Brad Little did not comment on Adams’ remark. The day proceeded with the legislation frozen for the last two weeks, starting in the Senate and the Fetal Heartbeat Preborn Child Protection Act.

Senate Bill 1183, the first item on the Senate’s docket, passed the Idaho Senate Tuesday by a 28-7 vote. The bill, if approved by the House and signed into law, would prohibit the performing of abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected. The legislation drew emotional testimony from senators on both sides of the issue, with Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, saying the calls for science should not be cherry-picked at the preborns' expense.

“I hear folks on the other side of the issue that perhaps this life growing within a mother is not really a person, not really a human, not really something that should be called a child,” Souza told the Senate. “But in our culture, we still have a problem with slavery, with people not being treated well, and yet we still deny the life growing within us, as a mother. There is no doubt that is a human baby … When you hear that heartbeat at the doctor’s office, it is a reality. There is no doubt.”

Senate Democrats brought up their concerns, ranging from the state imposing religious views on others to the rape exception clause of the bill’s language. That clause requires a police report, something opponents say would cause undue trauma on mothers forced to revisit their attacks for months on end.

The House voted against Senate Bill 1087 Tuesday, which asked to raise the smoking age in Idaho from 18 to 21. The bill had passed the Senate a month ago by a 25-10 vote, and supporters were hopeful the bill would clear the House and make its way to the governor’s desk for signature.

But House members voiced a range of opposition to SB 1087 Tuesday afternoon, with Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, saying that matching Idaho law to federal law is no reason to infringe on the people.

“That’s not a delegated power of the federal government to tell adults when they can be doing things and when they cannot be doing things,” Scott said. “… Right now, it is legal to smoke cigarettes if you’re 18 in the state.”

Others voting against SB 1087 argued that most all convenience stores in Idaho already defer to federal law, and that people who are old enough to serve in the military are old enough to choose whether or not to smoke.

The bill failed 40-28. It was not the only bill to fail Tuesday.

SB 294 — which, among other things, would establish the Strong Students Grant Program — narrowly failed in the Senate late Tuesday afternoon.

The bill would have spent an initial $40 million, followed by $10 million per year after, to pay grants to private school students. The bill would have paid $500 per child to households making under $50,000 per year, followed by a scaled grant to students in households making more than $50,000 per year.

Proponents said the bill would primarily go to families in poorer, rural areas. But opponents said those students are few and far between.

“I worry this bill really benefits the 75 percent of families that live in our urban areas, and will again harm our rural schools,” said Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow. “We tried to say, ‘This doesn’t take money away from our public schools.’ We have a fixed pot of money. If we choose to spend money one way, it’s not available another way.”

Some said the bill would subsidize private, religious schools, which would lead down a slippery slope to finance faith.

Others said the drop from the initial $40 million down to $10 million would set students’ education back as they scramble to recover that $500 apiece in the years to come.

The bill failed 18-16, but another education measure cleared the House later in the day.

The House voted unanimously to repeal a clause in Idaho Code that requires schools to automatically expel students who bring certain dangerous weapons onto campuses.

SB 1116 cleared the Senate unanimously in February and was slated to get a vote in the days leading up to the COVID-19 recess.

While the legislation doesn’t circumvent the Federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires a one-year expulsion for anyone who brings a firearm to school, the legislation does seek flexibility for schools to deal with children who may inadvertently bring pocketknives or kitchen knives onto campuses.

The Idaho School Boards Association has already thrown its support for SB 1116.

The House is reconvening today. The Senate was still debating bills as of press time Tuesday night. Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he was surprised at the ferocity against many of the bills that got a vote Tuesday.

"It was an interesting day," Amador said. "There were many more bills that failed on the floor than normal. I think the attitude is, it’s not a real pleasant one. The two weeks we had off didn't leave everyone in a particularly happy mood."