Legislators’ frogs seldom hide princes

LEWISTON TRIBUNEFebruary 23, 2014 

The slew of “litmus test” bills we’ve seen this session brings to mind the fairy tale about the princess who kisses a frog that turns into a handsome prince.

Apparently in some versions of the story, the prince only appears after the frog is thrown against a wall in disgust. Either way, the slimy creature represents something gross and undesirable that magically transforms into a heartfelt desire.

These bills seem faintly ridiculous at first. They do little but demonstrate the Legislature’s commitment to guns, motherhood and apple pie. They rarely have much effect on Idaho’s quality of life, yet they’re often presented as major accomplishments.

They raise a question: Are voters getting what they want, or what they deserve?

Take, for example, last week’s Federal Firearm, Magazine and Register Ban Enforcement Act, which subjects public officials to a civil penalty if they order an employee to confiscate someone’s guns in compliance with a federal directive.

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said the legislation wasn’t law enforcement’s idea: “Its intent is to protect our citizens’ right to keep and bear arms.”

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, noted the bill essentially opens federal law to constitutional interpretation by any and all public officials.

However, he said, it’s unlikely Vick’s bill will ever actually come into effect.

“It sounds to me like the only way this happens is if we have someone who has a nefarious purpose to void the Idaho Constitution, who has been diligently taking notes about their conspiratorial intent, and who then orders someone to confiscate a gun,” he said.

Similarly, Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, recently introduced the Restoring Constitutional Governance Act, which makes it illegal for U.S. military forces to capture Idaho citizens and treat them as enemy combatants. Should anyone be worried about that, they can now rest easy.

Yet even as lawmakers protect us from these unlikely scenarios, real public safety threats are essentially being ignored.

In a budget presentation last week, for example, Idaho State Police Chief Col. Ralph Powell noted his agency has 10 fewer commissioned officers today than it did 20 years ago, even though the population has increased by almost 40 percent during that time.

“All ISP districts have been substantially understaffed, causing safety concerns for officers as well as the public,” he said.

ISP handled almost 216,000 service calls in 2013, and five out of six of its districts can’t provide 24-hour staffing.

A 2011 study found it needs more than 90 additional patrol officers. The agency asked for 15 positions in fiscal 2015; the governor is recommending six. It asked for eight people last year and actually had its authorized head count reduced by six.

Is this what voters had in mind? Do we have the Legislature people wanted or the one they got because they didn’t bother to vote, didn’t bother to communicate with their elected representatives, and didn’t bother to penalize them for wasting time on the wrong kinds of bills?

Are these measures are frogs or princes?

After all, an “activist” Legislature that’s keen on solving problems only has a few tools at its disposal: redistribution of wealth, regulations, civil or criminal penalties. That’s how it gets the job done — and quite often, the cure ends up being worse than the problem. That’s why Idahoans are so suspicious of government.

In that case, do-nothing bills may be the closest thing to a handsome prince they can hope for, but whether that benefits anyone stuck on a back road waiting for the state patrol is the question.

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