Top Idaho House and Senate leaders who spoke about school shootings Tuesday agreed the state has not done enough to address the problem and protect students.
The lawmakers’ statements at a lunch forum with the media were a stark difference from Gov. Butch Otter’s remarks in February, when he told a similar gathering, “I think we’ve done what we can do.”
The discussion came as teenagers nationwide — including in the Treasure Valley — plan to walk out of schools for at least 17 minutes Wednesday to demand federal action on gun control. Students in Boise and nearby cities plan a gathering at the Statehouse. Meanwhile, a group of students in Nampa have organized a counter-walkout in support of arming teachers.
Asked if lawmakers did enough in the current session to keep kids safe, House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, was blunt: “No.”
He continued: “We basically did, for all intents and purposes, nothing to ensure school safety this year. … Most that I’ve talked to, and most in our body agree that we have got to start having a conversation about background checks and tying it to mental health records. And until we’re willing to do that, we are going to fall short in providing safety measures for our high schools and for all schools.”
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, called mass shootings “a complex question. Everybody’s got a simplistic answer.”
He emphasized that he doesn’t oppose the walkouts, but asked what more people could be doing with that time.
“There are things we need to do within our schools to help so that kids don’t get into these mental problems,” Hill said. “It’s not just gun violence, it’s suicide, it’s bullying, it’s a lack for respect for educators. And I think that as we strengthen our homes we will help avoid those terrorist-type problems and help some of the mental illness problems.”
The conversation from there largely wandered into issues of mental health. Asked if lawmakers have done enough to address mental health problems, Hill responded: “Absolutely not. We’ve never done enough to take care of mental health care.”
Hill said the state is doing more than it used to, noting projects like funding behavioral health crisis centers in cities across Idaho. But he lamented that some people actually have to go to prison before they receive treatment.
Why haven’t lawmakers done more? “I don’t know,” Hill said. “ I don’t know why we don’t do a lot of things in health care, particularly in mental health care.” And if there’s a deficit, why not extend the session to fix it? “Is sticking around another six months going to change anything? I don’t know.”
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, connected improving mental health services to expanding Medicaid, an Affordable Care Act option that Idaho lawmakers have largely opposed. “It’s not like this discussion hasn’t happened this year, or five or six years before this now,” she said.
It’s worth noting that research has found a weak link between mental illness and shootings. The relationship between psychological problems and violence only becomes significant when a person also has other issues, such as drug or alcohol abuse and a history of being bullied or victimized.
In other words, mental illness doesn’t cause, and isn’t a good predictor of, school shootings.
Other topics the lawmakers discussed Tuesday:
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, warned that addressing the state’s reading test for elementary students will likely be the final legislative battle of the session.
He said lawmakers are still working behind the scenes on redesigning or replacing the Idaho Reading Indicator — an early reading test for kindergarten through third-graders.
Idaho schools have been using the test for nearly 20 years, but critics have begun speaking out that it needs an update.
However, no proposal has yet to surface inside the Idaho Statehouse despite multiple meetings with lawmakers and stakeholders over the past few weeks trying to settle on a solution.
Bedke says he’s hopeful legislation will appear before the end of the week. Lawmakers hope to complete their work for the year by March 23, and adjourn by March 27.
Hill said he is unaware of any senator who plans to call a bill legalizing CBD oil out of the committee where it’s stuck, and to the Senate floor. That confirms the bill is likely dead for the session.
The legislation, on oil extracted from cannabis plants for purposes such as treating some seizure disorders, passed the House. But it was shelved by Senate Health and Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, who has said he wouldn’t give the bill a hearing because Gov. Butch Otter opposes it.
One committee member’s request for a hearing ended in an inappropriate closed-door session and vote to hold the bill last week. Heider one day later recieved the committee’s consent to vacate the vote.
Hill on Tuesday commended Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise and the only committee member who did not join the closed-door meeting.
“There was a motion made that was out of order and it should have just been ruled out of order and been over and done with,” Hill said. “(The committee) went into an executive session, which was inappropriate, and the chairman has apologized for that. Any action taken after that executive hearing was declared null and void.”
HARASSMENT AT THE CAPITOL
Hill said he would like to adopt whatever findings a working group on harassment produces by the end of the session — even if their work is not complete by then.
Legislative leaders started the session with a respectful workplace training for lawmakers, staff and anyone else who passes through the Capitol. They also tasked the working group to finalize a revised workplace harassment policy.
The work came amid harassment discussions at state capitols across the country, prompted by the #metoo movement. Stennett said there has been a heightened awareness in the building this year, and she hopes the discussion will continue.
MORE BILLS, MORE DEBATES
The House has seen twice as many bills this year as last. Erpelding commended Bedke for sticking to a promise to encourage committee chairmen to let bills get an initial hearing.
“As a result of that, I think on our side we had a tremendously successful year,” Erpelding said, citing legislation on such topics as children’s hearing aids, preventative dental care and civil asset forfeiture.
“This legislative session has been one of the most fair that I’ve been privy to since I’ve been at the Legislature,” Erpelding said.
Bedke said chairmen sticking by their commitments has proven to be a success, though not “without its bumps and bruises.”
Hill was asked about his guidance on the Senate side while he talked about the CBD oil measure. He said he doesn’t tell his chairmen “what to do,” but said, “I encourage our committee chairs to look at the whole picture.”
The Statesman’s Audrey Dutton and the Associated Press contributed.
School walkout plans
The local and national organizers behind the Women’s March are arranging Wednesday’s school walkout, in protest of the mass shooting Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. An “Enough is Enough” event starts at 10 a.m. at the Idaho Capitol and runs through noon. Other walkouts are expected to last only 17 minutes, including the counterprotest in Nampa by students who support arming teachers instead of passing more federal gun restrictions.
Area schools have said a student must have their parent’s permission if they will be absent for the protest.
Further protests are scheduled, including a March 24 “March for Our Lives” in Downtown Boise.