Voters spoke, but lawmakers must still work

By Wayne Hoffman

In 1942, Idaho voters thought they were getting a pretty good deal. A proposal, in the form of a citizen initiative, was for every senior citizen to be granted a pension, funded at taxpayer expense. Idaho voters were clearly enamored with the idea. They voted 68 percent in favor of the concept.

But then the Legislature came to town, and lawmakers were confronted with a multi-million dollar expense for a new program, no revenues to pay for it and no clear direction from the governor to solve the problem. Gov. C.A. Bottolfsen left it to the Legislature to deliberate on the matter. Several weeks passed before the governor called a joint session of the House and Senate to announce that the so-called “Grants Act” had “gone to war” and should be repealed by lawmakers, who obliged.

Good thing, too. The state couldn’t possibly afford the entitlement, which in those times was $16 million. Today, the program itself would cost $200 million, assuming that people still lived to about 65 and the state were still small and mostly rural. It’s easy to imagine that, were the Grants Act in place today, it would rival public education and Medicaid in size and cost.

I bring up the issue just to point out that voters occasionally take an action that still requires immediate review of a subsequent Legislature. It is neither unprecedented nor is it offensive. It’s our system of government, and God bless it.

In November, Idaho voters rejected education reforms passed by our Legislature in 2011. That’s in keeping with our system of government that allows voters to approve or reject legislation placed before them.

I see nothing particularly startling or wrong with the idea that the Legislature would continue to discuss the topic of education reform. I don’t recall voters admonishing lawmakers from ever talking about education again. Nor did they say the Legislature should take a respite from the topic. Taxpayers spend $1.2 billion a year on public schools; the Legislature would be remiss to discontinue discussion about how that money is spent and whether the public policies surrounding public education were correct or in need of alteration.

I also think the Legislature is going about the issue the right way. Rather than tackle the issues that were the subject of countless TV and radio ads, the Legislature is looking at those questions that never rose to a level of public discourse:

Should labor negotiations between school boards and unions remain closed to the public?
Should teachers receive tenure? Should labor unions automatically be granted a seat at the table with the school board or should those unions have to prove that they represent a majority of the professional staff? Should the school board have greater powers when it comes to teacher employment and budget management?

These topics are fair questions, and the questions are being presented by the Idaho School Boards Association, which represents the people elected by voters to run the schools our children attend.

To say that “the voters have spoken” and abandon any kind of discussion about public education until 2014 or 2015 does a disservice to schoolchildren and their parents who expect and deserve action now.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.