Wednesday, May 29, 2024

OPINION: A disheartening preview of coming attractions at the Statehouse theater

by JIM JONES/Guest Opinion
| February 3, 2023 1:00 AM

Based upon a preview of the coming attractions that will play at the Idaho Statehouse this legislative session, it appears there will be an excess of needless drama, bombastic performances, senseless ad-libbing and failed plot lines. Only an audience of far-right political zealots will give the spectacle a thumbs-up rating.

Speaking of failed plot lines, Sen. Doug Okuniewicz wants to resurrect the 2021 Legislature’s scheme to deprive the people of their constitutional right to make laws through the initiative process. The Idaho Supreme Court struck the scheme down as unconstitutional, ruling that it “violated the people’s fundamental right to legislate directly.” Okuniewicz has introduced SJR 101, which would write the scheme into the Constitution, effectively killing the initiative and referendum. If SJR 101 is approved by the Legislature for the 2024 general election ballot, my prediction is that it will be resoundingly defeated by the voters. Idahoans love their initiative rights.

Then we have Idaho’s fledgling Attorney General Raul Labrador, going beyond his scripted duties under Idaho law and inserting himself into a controversy that is none of his business. Labrador took to Twitter on Jan. 23 to proclaim that a proposed LGBTQ policy under consideration by the Caldwell School District “appears to violate Idaho law.” Labrador followed up with a letter to the Idaho School Boards Association (ISBA), claiming he had the right to stick his nose into this local matter, saying he had “serious concerns” that the proposed policy “conflicts with state law” and demanding answers to a series of intrusive and menacing questions.

Labrador claimed his letter was issued under Idaho Code section 67-1401, which sets out the AG’s duties, but nothing in that statute confers authority to intermeddle in the development of school policies by locally-elected boards or to second-guess the policy recommendations made by non-profit corporations like ISBA. Neither the tweet nor the letter specified any action by the school board or ISBA that conflicted with state law. Although Labrador mentioned the First Amendment, it appeared that he was the heavy-handed government official seemingly trying to squelch speech rights. In all, it looked as if Labrador’s unprofessional actions were designed for the sole purpose of garnering accolades from the extremists in his political audience.

Another extreme-right performance artist in the Legislature, Sen. Scott Herndon, made a rather dramatic debut in the Legislature with a passel of right-wing proposals and a bad attitude about not getting his way in a political fight. In riffing about the Second Amendment, Herndon reportedly implied that when you lose a political fight, then you “have the real fight.” He was likely spouting off to gain kudos from his extremist base, but this kind of performance is not fitting for a player elected to the Idaho Senate.

Another bit player in the legislative drama, Sen. Brian Lenney, opened his performance with a proposal to repeal Idaho’s constitutional prohibition against using taxpayer money to fund religious schooling. AG Labrador and some others claim the prohibition, sometimes called the Blaine Amendment, is a “dead letter.” The fact is that the Blaine Amendment is alive and well, unless the Legislature starts spending taxpayer money on private schooling. Lenney seems to think Idaho’s taxpayers want to take on the additional burden of supporting private and religious schooling. He does have an interest in molding young minds, as evidenced by his two kiddie books — ”Why Everyone Needs an AR-15: A Guide for Kids” and “Why is Feminism So Silly: A Guide for Kids.”

Presiding over these performances from his comfy home in the State of Washington is the chief of the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), Wayne Hoffman. In a remarkable display of theatrical prowess, Hoffman has been issuing directorial guidance to his minions in the Legislature from that woke state while pretending his instructions emanate from the Gem State. Hoffman’s IFF must get credit for much of the storm and stress that will be produced during the session, although the closing of Idaho’s GOP primary election in 2012 set the stage for ever-more-extreme and disruptive sessions.

If Idaho voters are dismayed by the legislative spectacle this year, they may have a real chance for a change of scenery — a new attraction that would appeal to a wide audience — traditional Idaho Republicans, Independents, Democrats and whatever. Please stay tuned.

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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. He is a regular columnist for The Hill online news. He blogs at