The last time Idaho lawmakers let their constitutional interpretations get in the way of routine state business, they put at risk $200 million in child support payments for 400,000 adults and children in Idaho. The governor had to call a special legislative session to put things right.
That was last spring, when a federal law change in how cross-border child support judgments are enforced ran into resistance in the Statehouse from those who thought local jurisdictions might have to abide by support rulings from “foreign tribunals,” regardless of whether those rulings met American legal standards.
The issue became a cause célèbre for those worried about state sovereignty in the face of federal “coercion.” After all, here was the U.S. government forcing the state to adopt the change or be excluded from the federal support-payment system — cutting off the flow of payments into and out of Idaho.
For those who saw it for what it was — a routine rule change — the opposition became a bit of an embarrassment, with Idaho taking another turn in the national role of mildly rogue state with a habit of picking fights with the feds. The governor convened the special session, the Legislature approved the change and adjourned. Crisis averted.
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There was no way anyone in legislative leadership wanted to go through an exercise like that again, especially in a don’t-rock-the-boat election year. That helps explain what happened last week, when another routine piece of legislation took a constitutional detour, this time into the arena of same-sex marriage.
Yes, the Supreme Court ruled on the matter in June, striking down gay-marriage bans nationwide, including Idaho’s. Same-sex marriage in Idaho has been legal since October 2014, when a federal appeals court upheld an earlier ruling invalidating the ban voters added to the state Constitution in 2006.
Unenforceable though it is, Idaho still has that ban on its books. That’s what caused problems.
The routine matter before the House last week was a bill to conform state tax code with recent changes in federal tax code. It has a financial impact for the state — $17 million this year and $29 million in 2017 — but really, it’s an accounting change needed to make state tax payments line up with the federal system. Tax filers and preparers need it to begin submitting returns.
As first written, the conformity bill would have removed the now-moot language that bans same-sex couples from filing joint returns. It got through opposition in committee but was turned back when it reached the House floor Thursday. A revised version came back the following day and passed, but not without some sparks.
The revised bill restored the reference to Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage/joint-filers but added a clunky exception for marriages “recognized and permitted” by the recent court decisions.
Paradoxically, it drew opposition from diverse quarters. Lawmakers who support same-sex marriage and want the state’s laws and Constitution fixed to conform with those rulings voted against it. And so did those lawmakers — for or against same-sex marriage — who wouldn’t vote for a measure that contradicts state law, even if that state law has been found unconstitutional.
This could have gotten really out of hand, a la the child-support rule in 2015. But House Republican leadership wasn’t having it. Speaker Scott Bedke made a rare audience appearance at Friday’s committee hearing, where the revised bill was approved and moved to the House floor. Bedke, along with the House majority leader, assistant majority leader and majority caucus chair, were listed as sponsors. Still, four committee members, two Democrats and two Republicans, voted to hold it.
One of those votes was North Idaho Republican Heather Scott, who opposed both versions of the bill on the “contradicts-state-law” grounds. On the House floor, she led an ill-fated parliamentary move to deep-six it. When that failed, the House passed it 54-16, with an unusual bipartisan group of eight Democrats and eight Republicans voting no. It now goes to the Senate, which won’t go through similar contortions.
So why focus on legal wrangling over an obscure bookkeeping measure?
Idaho is keen to compete economically with neighboring states, bolster its economy and attract business. As it debates tax relief vs. tax incentive and the difference between wise investment and government overspending, what is the impact of such sideline skirmishes on businesses weighing an Idaho expansion or relocation? Do they survey the political landscape, judge it slightly askew, and keep looking for a place where symbolism doesn’t endanger run-of-the-mill, responsible-government actions, like strengthening child support and synchronizing tax rules?
The impact might not be as readily quantifiable as, say, a tax cut, or a tax conformity bill. But it might be nearly as substantial.