At luncheon, local legislators push back against Sen. Chuck Winder's comments

·3 min read

Jun. 11—Local lawmakers came to the defense of the Idaho Freedom Foundation on Thursday, pushing back against the notion that the organization and its supporters represent a threat to democracy.

Speaking to about 70 people at a Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce luncheon, 6th Legislative District Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said he's unwilling to give any organization that much credit.

"I think indifference is a much bigger threat to democracy than any one of the legislative advisory groups we see in Boise," Johnson said.

Earlier this month, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, expressed disappointment at the number of lawmakers who are willing to "follow the direction of the Idaho Freedom Foundation" by voting for bills based on how the conservative organization scores them.

"To me, that's one of the biggest threats we have to democracy in our state," Winder said, during a virtual meeting of the Boise City Club.

Given that comment, Johnson, together with 6th District Reps. Mike Kingsley and Lori McCann, were asked Thursday why any lawmaker would care what the Freedom Foundation thinks about a bill.

Kingsley, whose last session voted in accordance with the organization's recommendations about 95 percent of the time, said the Freedom Foundation "serves a good purpose" by letting people know whether a lawmaker who says he supports small government actually votes that way.

Everyone who runs for office as a conservative "says they want to lower taxes and have smaller government, but then they get to Boise and no one knows what they do," Kingsley said. "I like the fact that (the Freedom Foundation) looks at every bill and asks if it grows government or increases taxes. I ran as a little-government guy, and voting for something opposite to that isn't keeping my word to you. So I like having that resource."

Johnson said the organization "does its homework" by reading all the bills and scoring them based on a number of metrics. He may disagree with the conclusions it reaches, but "there's a lot of things in there that are helpful to me."

"The danger is if you use the Freedom Index as a crutch," he said. "If you don't take the time to read a bill and study what it does and really learn what it does, and instead take someone else's word for it, that I think was what (Winder) was trying to get at. That blind allegiance to one view of the world may compromise the way we serve."

McCann was appointed to office last month, following the resignation of former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger. Although she hasn't had the opportunity to meet with the organization yet, she was concerned it focuses more on dividing Republicans than on bringing them together.

"I'm a very conservative, strong woman who believes in small government, but there are certain aspects of government we must support," she said. "One of those is education. When you look at our rankings (in per-pupil spending), at 48th or 50th, that to me says we aren't doing our job to support education the way it needs to be supported to keep kids in Idaho to work."

McCann said she'll be a strong advocate for education at all levels, from preschool to higher education.

"Without a strong education system, it hurts economic development and hurts the whole state," she said. "We need to be working together on that, rather than pulling each other apart."

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.