BOISE — Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, a Boise Republican, spoke out against the Idaho Freedom Foundation on Wednesday, calling the think tank’s influence “one of the biggest threats” Idaho has to its democracy.
During a virtual forum for legislative leaders held by the City Club of Boise, four lawmakers addressed the recent session, which was tumultuous and included a break brought on by a COVID-19 outbreak. When asked about the biggest disappointment of the session, Winder took aim at a number of lawmakers in his own party.
“I think my greatest disappointment is how many legislators are willing to follow the direction of the Idaho Freedom Foundation,” Winder said. “To me that’s one of the biggest threats we have to our democracy in our state is — we’ve got a small group of people that are very vocal, that are very aggressive towards anyone that doesn’t agree with them.”
Winder said more groups in Idaho need to form to counter the constant messaging that legislators receive and to stop the trend toward the “extreme right.”
Winder, House Speaker Scott Bedke, House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett debated issues that included tax cuts, higher education, the initiative process and executive emergency powers at the forum, but Winder’s unexpected remarks garnered attention.
Throughout the session, IFF attacked higher education institutions and public schools. A bill to simply accept $6 million in federal funding for early childhood education failed to make it out of the House — a bill the IFF claimed would give Democratic President Joe Biden “direct control over the education of babies and toddlers.” Negotiations with IFF-aligned legislators prompted a $2.5 million cut to higher education budgets and a House bill condemning aspects of “critical race theory,” an evolving, hard-to-define idea that historical racism continues to affect people of color today.
The Idaho Freedom Foundation recently attacked Winder for his leadership in the Republican-dominated Idaho Senate, which the IFF actually has called “left-leaning.” Republicans hold a supermajority in both legislative chambers.
“In fact, if you’ll listen to some of the rhetoric going on out there now, everyone in the Senate’s bad. They gotta get rid of the entire Senate before they can get their ideas advanced,” Winder said. “So I think that’s a huge threat to just the democracy in our state, the republican form of government.”
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, a gubernatorial candidate who has paid an IFF analyst for contract work in her office, began a task force over “indoctrination” in public schools that began meeting last week. The other co-chair, Rep. Priscilla Giddings, a White Bird Republican, is running for lieutenant governor.
IFF President Wayne Hoffman, McGeachin and Giddings didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Wins on transportation this legislative session
Rubel, a Boise Democrat, criticized Republicans for tax cuts that provided the largest rebates to wealthier households and for rushing through property tax law that could limit cities’ growth. Rubel said the Legislature has perpetuated “a system we have that does not allow good ideas to be heard,” pointing to alternative property tax bills that never received a hearing.
Democrats touted raising the age limit in the foster care system from 18 to 21.
Bedke, an Oakley Republican who also is running for lieutenant governor, highlighted the transportation funding that passed in the Legislature, allowing for $1.6 billion in bonding over a 20-year period for infrastructure projects.
Stennett, a Ketchum Democrat, slammed Republicans for making it more difficult to place a citizen-led initiative on the ballot, adding that diminishing the public’s power “was more than unfortunate going into the next phase of what politics is becoming.” The bill quickly prompted legal challenges.
Winder said legislators were able to work with Gov. Brad Little to come to a solution on bills that curbed a governor’s emergency powers. Little vetoed the first two bills that passed, and then ultimately signed new versions that were softened by the Legislature.
Bedke said legislators “learned a lot” from last summer’s special session. He said this session, lawmakers and the governor’s office ultimately set aside personal differences to find some common ground.
“We all learned some things, and I think that the pieces of the (emergency powers) legislation that were passed are common-sense based and will serve us going forward,” Bedke said.