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Idaho’s Legislature is more open than ever, but the public is still barred in one key area

Idaho’s Legislature is more open than ever, but the public is still barred in one key area

Wayne Hoffman
November 30, 2023
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November 30, 2023

In March 1972, the Idaho House of Representatives was in the middle of debating the adoption of a new criminal law code when legislative leadership abruptly and unexpectedly put a halt to the discussion. The reason: one of the members, Rep. Wayne Loveless, a Pocatello Democrat, had phoned one of his local radio stations, holding his desk phone’s receiver to a nearby loudspeaker so that the station could broadcast the debate live.

This was a violation of House rules. To prevent the continued live streaming, and being that cell phones weren’t a thing in those days, House Speaker William Lanting disconnected all of the members’ floor phones.

How far we’ve come! About 20 years ago, cameras were installed in the House and Senate chambers. Lawmakers could be heard but the images were so small and grainy, it was difficult to make out who was talking. When the Statehouse was renovated and reopened more than a decade ago, upgraded cameras were installed in both chambers and in committee rooms.  Today, anyone anywhere in the world can watch and listen to hearings and debates of committees and of the House and Senate. 

Those recordings are stored forever on the Legislature’s website, a reality made possible by the work of the Idaho Freedom Foundation. What’s more, people from all over the state can remotely offer testimony on any topic during committee meetings, a reform we advocated in 2014. In 2018, we got the House of Representatives to change its rules so as to formally allow the public to video record and photograph the proceedings themselves.

But there’s yet one place where public participation remains unwelcome. And it’s the weirdest place of all for the public to be banned: the committee where decisions are made about how your money is spent, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC). 

Each year, the 20-member committee decides how to spend your money, and JFAC remains the only committee that disallows public testimony. For the 2024 legislative session that starts in January, the committee has changed some of the processes it will use to consider budgets. No longer will the committee sit for hours listening to agency directors making pleas for money. Instead, the committee will use the time saved to ask more questions about past spending and requests for more money. That’s a welcome step. 

The problem is none of the changes invites public input, allowing ordinary people to say whether they think an agency is spending too much, not enough, or is misdirecting public money in some way. It’s your money, but you’re completely shut out of the process. The question that needs to be asked is “Why?” Why, with so many changes to the legislative process over the last 50 years, does JFAC still resist public testimony? 

For a brief time several years ago, the committee allocated just a few hours of public testimony on a single day. Three hours in a single sitting to talk about billions of dollars in spending was fairly useless, and the experiment was quickly dropped.

But now that agency bosses are no longer sucking all the air out of the room, why can’t the public have some of that time each day to provide feedback on the budget? Why can’t members of the public get a say, the same way they’re invited to speak on any bill being considered in committee? 

Lawmakers have just one job each and every year: pass a balanced budget, as required by the state constitution. The least the Legislature can do is make sure the people paying the bills are heard.

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