Paul Shepherd Ways & Means

Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, addresses the House Ways & Means Committee on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, at the state Capitol.

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BOISE — Idaho Fish & Game commissioners would no longer have to declare their party affiliation, nor would the commission be required to be bipartisan, under new legislation introduced Thursday by north-central Idaho Rep. Paul Shepherd.

The move comes after Gov. Brad Little asked a Clearwater Region appointee to the commission to resign after discovering that he had changed his party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated right before he applied for the post; the commission already had four Republicans, and it’s required by law not to have more than four members of any one political party.

There are no Democrats on the panel; the other three commissioners are listed as unaffiliated.

“Sometimes it’s hard to fill a vacancy, and the political party should have nothing to do with that,” Shepherd told the Idaho Press. “It should be, do you care about fish and game.”

The party-split requirement was in the original 1938 voter initiative that created the Idaho Fish & Game Commission — the state’s first initiative. Numerous Idaho state boards and commissions are required by law to not be dominated by a single political party; for at least one of those, the Tax Commission, that requirement is spelled out in the Idaho Constitution. The current tax commission includes two Democrats, both of whom previously held partisan elected office, among its four members.

Shepherd’s bill was introduced Thursday on a 4-3 party-line vote in the House Ways & Means Committee, with all the panel’s Republicans voting yes and all of its Democrats voting no.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she’ll normally support introducing practically any bill, even if she disagrees with it, but this one was an exception.

“This opens up a Pandora’s box,” Rubel said. Though Democrats may hold only 20% of the seats in the state Legislature, she said, “There are statutory protections for minority representation on our commissions. I think having that diversity on our commissions is critical.” She said she strongly opposed the “danger this would pose to balanced discussion in the state.”

Shepherd said his bill wouldn’t remove a provision, also from the original 1938 voter initiative, forbidding Fish & Game commissioners from also holding elected or appointed offices, including party positions.

“That stays the same,” he said. “The only thing that changes is you don’t have to declare your political affiliation.”

The Ways & Means vote to introduce the bill clears the way for a possible full committee hearing on it. To become law, it would have to pass both the full House and Senate and receive the governor’s signature.

When Little announced last month that he was seeking a new Fish & Game commissioner, he praised the former nominee, Brad Melton, saying, “Although Mr. Melton is qualified to fill the spot, he willingly stepped down so that I can appoint someone to the commission in accordance with the spirit of the law.”

Little’s press secretary, Marissa Morrison, said, “He would like a bipartisan board representing different viewpoints on that, and that was the issue.”

The governor’s move won praise from Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who said, “I agree with him. I think that’s the direction we should be heading.”

Numerous other state boards and commissions have similar requirements in state law:

  • Idaho Transportation Board
  • Idaho Water Resource Board
  • Commission for the Blind & Visually Impaired
  • Public Utilities Commission
  • Board of Health & Welfare
  • Commission of Pardons & Parole
  • Judicial Council
  • Board of Correction
  • Board of Environmental Quality
  • Board of Parks & Recreation

Rubel said, “This is a bad road to go down.”

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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