As we reflect on yet another legislative session that left many frustrated, if not disheartened, it is important that we look closely at why so many priorities were left unattended. We all know, despite what political party we align ourselves with, that there is an imbalance of power in the Idaho Statehouse. What many don’t fully understand is the process by which issues are taken up or left to die — and how much power the chairpersons of those committees wield.
An unsettling trend in the Legislature is the growing demands of chairpersons to allow legislation to advance. A case in point: A coalition of 24 nonprofits working to advance the minimum wage in Idaho was given the directive to secure committee votes to allow the legislation to be printed and a public hearing. Once that benchmark was met, the terms changed. In order to move forward, the chair directed the coalition to secure the votes necessary for the issue to move to the full Senate floor. Now, the defense being offered is that they must be sensitive to not waste their colleagues’ time if a bill cannot pass. However, herein lies the problem. If we as citizens and organizations working to advance fair and just legislation must secure votes from legislators before they have had the opportunity to hear from their constituents and people representing both sides of the issue — before they can assess what they have heard and apply reasoned and fair judgment — just how is our democracy working?
Minimum wage is an issue worthy of a public discussion. Idaho has the second-largest number of minimum wage workers in the nation. They fall between 25-38 years of age. They are disproportionately women and minorities. They are students trying to attain higher education amidst skyrocketing costs. Three-quarters of them are adults, 40 percent of whom are the sole providers for their families. They are individuals younger than 20 subjected to Idaho’s training (or seasonal) wage of $4.25 for a period of 90 days. They perform myriad important jobs, from service sectors to health care support occupations. Our biggest export are our young people in their 20s. Our biggest import is retirees living on fixed incomes who consume services, not products.
Most small businesses already pay more than minimum wage to keep and attract good employees, yet corporations who can afford to pay more simply don’t because they don’t have to. Instead, Idaho taxpayers subsidize salaries when workers become dependent upon aid. Furthermore, the cost savings of reducing reliance on food assistance could save the state millions of dollars in administration costs that could be redirected toward our shared priorities. Surely there is enough to warrant a public conversation. Yet the public has been denied public hearings on many of the issues that deeply affect their lives.
Regardless of where one might fall on the issue, to consistently deny citizens the opportunity to openly discuss these issues, to offer arguments and to give personal testimony obstructs the democratic process and is the most disturbing part of how business is being conducted at the Idaho Legislature.