Bill Manny

Where's the courage? Lawmakers fumble work on birth control, voter data and health care for the poor

Idaho state Capitol in Boise.
Idaho state Capitol in Boise.

There comes a moment in the course of a legislative session when the body of work starts to distinguish itself, or poises at a point of irredeemable breakdown. We have approached that moment.

My initial impulse was to rate actions this week on a Stupidity Index. Such mockery is personally satisfying, but not very productive. But distinguished leadership takes wisdom and courage, and that seems a fair measure to gauge our Legislature’s work product this week.

I am impressed with this session’s diligent work on the state’s science standards, first with the House Education Committee listening and exploring both sides and then the Senate Education Committee concluding, in essence, to let the state experts’ proposal become final. Those efforts showed that the process can rise to thoroughness and thoughtfulness and arrive at a wise outcome. That moment: Distinguished.

But this week there are less encouraging examples:

Birth control. Men lecturing women about birth control never plays well, and this week’s dubious Senate committee action comes a week after Sen. Dan Foreman made headlines being videotaped in an embarrassing Capitol confrontation with students in town from North Idaho to lobby for access to birth control.

Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb’s bill would allow women to get a 12-month supply of birth-control prescriptions, instead of the one- or three-month supply most insurers allow. It’s the way 11 other states do it. Buckner-Webb, a Boise Democrat, said her proposal was aimed at helping women in rural areas who have limited access to pharmacies, and she noted that birth control is dependent on consistent use.

But Sen. Tony Potts, a Republican newly appointed from East Idaho, argued that people need to learn how to manage their medication. The Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee killed the bill.

In this era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, I continue to be gobsmacked by my fellow middle-aged males who patronize young women as they debate laws that personally affect these young women. That is no way to win them friends or distinction. This moment: Not distinguished.

Protecting voter information. Reporting last fall by the Statesman and the nonprofit watchdog ProPublica revealed Swiss-cheese-style vulnerabilities to the Crosscheck system that collects and stores personal data on voters in Idaho and other states. At the time, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney recognized the seriousness of the questions and promised to “revisit” the state’s voluntary participation. While that visit apparently awaits guidance from Expedia, the House State Affairs Committee shunted aside a bill to stop Idaho’s participation in Crosscheck. The committee cited an easily corrected drafting error. The real error is failing to get the state out of a questionable system that subjects Idaho voters’ personal data to potential hacking and theft. This moment: Not distinguished.

Health care. After years of debate, multiple work groups and deep study, the state developed a novel plan to address rising costs and help uninsured Idahoans get assistance buying health insurance on the state health exchange. This used federal dollars to accomplish a humane and noble aim largely without adding more people to Idaho Medicaid rolls. But in an election year, even that was too much for lawmakers who sniffed a whiff of Obamacare in the plan and killed it.

This plan had the backing of Gov. Butch Otter and, just last week, a favorable reception from the Trump administration and Vice President Mike Pence’s trusted aides, who now oversee the nation’s Medicaid program.

This is a “be careful what you wish for” moment for lawmakers who can’t countenance even a sliver of Obamacare. The alternative may be a statewide initiative campaign that ultimately embraces full-blown Medicaid expansion. Just as high school students in Florida have flummoxed the lobbyists and lawmakers who thought they had cemented the inviolable status quo on guns and school safety, a group of young activists are pushing to get health care expansion on the statewide ballot in Idaho. Idaho lawmakers may regret the day they fumbled their chance to write a plan themselves. This moment: Not distinguished.

Yes, this is an election year and, yes, that can and will manifest itself in strange and tortured outcomes. But killing common-sense accountability measures or denying modest, Idaho-centric steps to save the state money and care for our fellow humans is beyond disheartening. And it is beyond discouraging that our leaders’ myopia limits their vision to no further than the next primary.

Bill Manny is the Statesman’s community engagement editor:; 208-377-6406; Twitter/Instagram @whmanny.