With great fanfare last week,Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter signed the Idaho Health Freedom Act into law, proclaiming that the bill says “the citizens of our state won’t be subject to another federal mandate or turn over another part of their life to government control.”
Otter is the first governor in the nation to sign such a bill, placing the state in the vanguard of a nationwide fracas over the issue.
The real-world impact of Idaho’s send-them-a-message? Negligible, probably. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who would have to sue the federal government to fulfill the intent of the bill, hasn’t even decided if he’s interested in pursuing the issue.
Meanwhile, the governor’s former colleague in the U.S. House of Representatives — Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho — was actually taking on the feds with a reasonable prospect of getting something done about federal overreaching.
For the past few months, the five-term Republican has railed against EPA actions regarding climate issues, water quality and, most importantly, the burden placed on small towns by tighter regulations on arsenic in drinking water. Towns such as Buhl and Castleford have had to borrow millions of dollars to cut their levels of the toxin to the 10-parts-per-billion standard approved in 2001 and formally adopted in 2006.
Earlier this month, Simpson and Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, introduced for the third time a bill that would allow public water systems serving 10,000 people or fewer people to apply to opt out of drinking-water regulations.
Certain aspects of the drinking-water bill, which Simpson first introduced two congresses ago with Otter, still need to be fleshed out. The initial legislation doesn’t include a definition for when the financial burden of meeting the federal mandate would be considered too high, nor does it state whether disturbingly high pollution levels would ever trump economic concerns.
But Simpson believes the bill will get a warmer reception in Congress this year as communities in other parts of the country report more problems complying with the arsenic rules.
The congressman has characterized the EPA as an unyielding regulatory entity. Its regional offices allegedly don’t apply rules the same way, and most EPA complaints over the past decade have been in the region that includes Idaho.
“I don’t get the idea that they are sympathetic to try to resolve any of these problems,” he said.
As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, Simpson has the clout to get the EPA’s attention — and demand changes. As political theater, that’s not as compelling as a high-noon showdown with the federal government over health care.
But for Idahoans, it’s more useful.