Heather Scott state affairs 2-12-20

Rep. Heather Scott, at left, presents her bill to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

After a hearing in which all but one of those speaking strongly opposed the bill, the House State Affairs Committee has voted along party lines, 12-3, to approve Rep. Heather Scott’s bill to ban all preferences for women or minorities in state hiring, contracting or public education. “I believe and I believe most of us do that it’s deeply offensive to hire people based upon the color of the skin or who they are,” Scott told the committee. “Hiring should be about competence … regardless of that person’s traits.”

Throughout the hearing, committee Chairman Steven Harris, R-Meridian, repeatedly ruled out of order questions from the Democratic members of the committee about the constitutionality of the bill, how it’s impacted by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and why the bill didn’t address those issues.

At one point, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, tried to make a motion to ask the committee to vote on whether its chairman had correctly ruled his question out of order. Harris sternly told him that was out of order. “That is not a valid motion, so that is not accepted. It’s out of order, it’s not a valid motion,” Harris declared.

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, asked Harris to put the committee at ease so the question could be posed to the House parliamentarian. “I am not planning on putting the committee at ease,” Harris responded, as Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, left to run upstairs and consult the parliamentarian.

Among the half-dozen people testifying against the bill was Rabbi Dan Fink of Boise, whom Harris identified as “Robbie Dan Fink” when he called him up to testify. Fink, speaking on behalf of the Interfaith Alliance, said, “Folks, if you think we are in a place where we do not need affirmative action, you were born on third base and you think you hit a triple.”

Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, chair of Add the Words Idaho and an employee of Legal Voice, which works for women’s and LGBT rights, said, “We know that racism and sexism have not been eradicated from this country. We’ve seen the numbers, we have seen the stats. If you are paying attention, you know that this is a reality.”

Only one person, Scott Yenor, testified in favor of the bill. “There is obviously a deep problem when it comes to so-called diversity hires,” he said. “No one ever introduces ‘our diversity hire’ or ‘our affirmative action hire,’” he said, because it hurts the employee’s pride. He said inequities don’t always stem from discrimination. “They’re also traceable to differences between men and women,” he said. “Women may work less because they have different priorities than men.”

Mistie Tolman, state director of Planned Parenthood in Idaho, said, “Marginalized groups in Idaho are increasingly targeted … and have been fighting for years to achieve basic protections” in areas like housing and employment. She said the Legislature chooses to ignore these problems, and instead is now looking at rolling back existing protections. “Instead of banning popular and effective policies that promote equal opportunity, we encourage you to focus on legislation that will promote the health and well-being of Idahoans,” she said.

Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, moved to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.” Gannon moved instead to send the bill to the House’s amending order, “so that we can amend and fix this bill.”

“As this bill stands now, this bill legislates discrimination, it is offensive, and any claim that this bill promotes equality for all is fake news,” he declared. “This bill leaves out religion, it leaves out sexual orientation, and in fact the title of the bill says ‘shall not discriminate in certain instances.’ In other words, it implies that it is picking and choosing when discrimination is appropriate and when it is not appropriate. This is not the kind of legislation this state should engage in, and it is offensive.”

Green said, “Today we saw hypocrisy on full display. For several years, we have had our communities coming to us and asking us for a hearing, a hearing that extends protection to all of our communities. Rather, today, this committee holds a hearing” on a measure to end longstanding protections, she said. “You guys, my voice isn’t going to be silenced. I’m going to stand with all my communities and ask that all my communities have equal standing in Idaho.”

Scott responded, “For contracting and hiring for government jobs, you cannot ask someone’s religion or sexual orientation … so those are not things that the state is looking into. So I just wanted to mention that.

Gannon’s motion was then defeated on a party-line voice vote. A roll-call vote was requested on the original motion from Zito; it passed along party lines, with all committee Republicans voting in favor, and all committee Democrats voting against. The bill now moves to the full House. To become law, it would need passage there and in the Senate and the governor's signature.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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