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Legislative leaders clash over the value of addressing transgender issues

The leaders from both parties agreed that lawmakers still have more to do on the property tax issue this year.
Credit: Idaho Press
From left, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, and House Speaker Scott Bedke address reporters at the Idaho Press Club's annual on-the-record "Headliners" event on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

BOISE, Idaho — Top GOP legislative leaders defended devoting large amounts of this year’s legislative session’s time to bills on transgender issues as “responsible” on Tuesday, as Democratic leaders blasted the move as “divisive” in a report from the Idaho Press.

“I think we’ve accomplished some good things and continue to do so,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, as he joined legislative leaders from both parties to address the Idaho Press Club’s annual “Headliners” event. “These are issues that need to be addressed. I think we are addressing them in an appropriate way.”

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said, “I am profoundly concerned, I really am. I find it nothing short of horrifying what has been brought forth this session, against a group that is probably literally the most vulnerable group in the state.”

Three bills regarding transgender Idahoans were introduced; one died in committee in the House after a huge outcry at a hearing on it. That measure sought to criminalize transgender medical treatment for anyone under 18.

RELATED: Idaho bill banning gender reassignment surgery for minors will not proceed, likely dead for the session

The other two measures both have passed the House and are pending in the Senate. HB 500 forbids transgender women or girls from playing on women’s sports teams in high school or college sports; HB 509 forbids changes to the gender marker on Idaho birth certificates to match a person’s gender identity, in direct defiance of a federal court order.

“I have friends with transgender children who are literally looking at leaving the state because they find this such a hostile place to be,” Rubel said. “I have friends in our business community that are embarrassed at the message this is sending about Idaho’s level of intolerance. … The largest players in our business and employer community have stepped forward and said, ‘Don’t do this, please stop. This is sending a terrible message for us in terms of recruiting and retaining the skilled labor force that we need here, to be sending the message that Idaho’s highest levels of government want to gang up on this group.’”

RELATED: Transgender athlete bill heads to Idaho Senate for possible amendments

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I’ve been in receipt of some thoughtful letters from some business leaders throughout the state, and I look forward to sitting down with them and talking through the issue.”

“I would make an argument on basic fairness, of having biological males transitioning and participating in women’s sports,” he said. “I think that’s a setback to everything we’ve tried to accomplish under Title IX.”

Hill said, “I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that there would be men transitioning to women who want to play on women’s athletic teams. It just didn’t enter my mind.”

There have been no reports of such incidents in Idaho, both Hill and Bedke acknowledged. Hill said, “Hopefully we can go forward and show our acceptance for everyone as we go through, but there are just some things that are not acceptable, and having someone with the physical characteristics of a man being able to play against my granddaughter in a basketball game or in track or something like that, this is not acceptable to me.”

“I think we are being responsible,” Hill said. “We need to look at what our citizens want.”

RELATED: Idaho targets transgender people, birth certificate changes

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said, “Most all of this is going to be litigated in court. We have A.G. (attorney general) opinions against them. … We are chasing things that we haven’t had an incidence.”

Hill commented, “I’ll tell you, you can get an attorney’s opinion for just about anything you want from somebody.”

But, he said, “We are in the lawmaking business. We have to take some risks. We want them to be as calculated as possible.”

Stennett expressed concerns that HB 500, even after it was amended Tuesday in the Senate, still allows any person to challenge a young female player’s gender, “and then they are forced to go in and defend themselves. … You’ve totally destroyed their dignity,” she said.

“We’re not taking care of property tax, we’ve got roads and bridges that are falling apart, we have all the things, the health care system, all the infrastructure that we were sent here to take care of, and this is all we seem to be able to talk about,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we see more of this in an election year, and it is to drive an agenda,” Stennett said. “There’s an awful lot of politics to it.”

The legislative leaders from both parties agreed that lawmakers still have more to do on the property tax issue this year, even as they push to adjourn their session a week from Friday.

“There’ll be something coming on the homeowner’s index,” Bedke said.

RELATED: Bill freezing property taxes for one year heads to Idaho Senate

Hill said he thought both the House and Senate were waiting to see what might happen with the proposal for a one-year freeze on local government property tax collections, which the Senate has now amended into a three-year, 4% cap.

“I really do think in the next few days you’ll see an increase in the circuit breaker,” Hill said, referring to the long-unadjusted property tax break Idaho offers the low-income elderly.

On the Senate-amended freeze bill, Bedke said, “I believe that’ll pass the House.” But he said that’s intended really to get “conversation started in the interim.” An interim legislative committee also is planned to look into all aspects of the property tax.

“We don’t have a solution yet, but we’ll put the right people in the room,” he said.

Rubel said of the freeze idea, “It’s going to freeze in place a bad situation. We need to at the very least be working on exemption issues and circuit breaker issues.”

Bedke said, “There are some unfinished issues, from my perspective. Obviously we have not addressed the Medicaid expansion funding. I think we have a looming property tax issue.”

He also noted that his bill to increase the grocery tax credit has been “languishing” on the House calendar, and said, “I still feel pretty strongly about that.”

RELATED: House revenue committee rejects Idaho food tax proposals

Rubel said, “One of the proposals out there now is to fund Medicaid expansion with funding taken from health districts, which I think may be worth reconsidering, because I think those health districts may be under some pretty substantial pressure in the very near future.” She was referring to the threat of coronavirus.

Hill said he believes lawmakers will address the state’s main needs before they adjourn, despite the House’s rejection of several budget bills in recent days, including the higher education budget and the budget for the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.

“I’m not concerned about the Secretary of State not being funded at all,” Hill said. “I’d rather suspect, since it’s an election year, we’d like to have him stick around for a while. So I think these budgets will get taken care of as we go through the next few days.”

More from our partner Idaho Press: Boise City Council approves $60K for diversity education, planning process

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