Budget committee shoots down federal overreach fund

by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports 

The joint budget committee shot down a new legal fund for the legislature Monday afternoon, voting 12-6 against the proposal. 

The bill from Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, would have created a Federal Overreach Legal Defense Fund for the legislature’s legal expenses in defending the state from overreach by the federal government. While not explicit in the bill, the $2 million fund was intended for challenging the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, chairs the Aug. 2 House Ethics Committee hearing regarding Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird.

The new federal overreach fund would have been separate from the legislature’s existing legal defense fund and constitutional defense fund.

Keith Bybee from the Legislative Services Office said that as of Monday morning, the balances are $1,133,249 in the Constitutional Defense Fund and $3,724,064 in the Legal Defense Fund.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee asked about those two funds repeatedly, questioning whether a new legal fund was really necessary when the legislature already has funds available for legal action.

Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, read from the existing constitutional defense statute and said it “sounds a lot like what we’re trying to create” with the new fund.

Dixon pointed out that the council that oversees the constitutional defense fund includes executive branch members whereas the new fund would solely be available to the legislature, at the discretion of the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said the five million dollars already appropriated to the existing legal funds should be plenty to fight against the federal mandates. 

“We will be back in session in six weeks,” Nate said. “I don’t anticipate us spending two million dollars in six weeks to defend Idaho’s sovereignty, but we could” with the funds already available.

Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, said a fund like this could have been used in a 2017 incident where the state was ordered to destroy data on elk populations gathered by illegally landing a helicopter in a wilderness area. Dixon named water rights issues with the federal government as another instance where the fund hypothetically could be used.

Dixon’s bill, HB 409, is identical to SB 1221 introduced Monday morning by Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise. Dixon told Idaho Reports that he had not coordinated with Winder and the twin bills came as a surprise to him. Dixon credited the idea behind the fund to the federalism committee.

The JFAC co-chairs told Idaho Reports the committee will not hold a hearing on Winder’s bill, as the two are identical.

On Friday’s Idaho Reports, Winder defended the legal fund proposal. “I think the Legislature, we saw a good example of this when we tried to join in the case in Georgia, and Georgia said ‘No, we don’t want the Legislature involved,’” Winder said. “We think we ought to be involved. We think we ought to have a position in these cases.”

Monday afternoon, Winder told Idaho Reports that he was disappointed the proposal was turned down. “Based upon what I heard, there were questions that weren’t answered and there was confusion as to what it could be used for. The intent was originally just for COVID-related defense,” Winder said. “I think it just confused the issue and diluted it, and as a result it didn’t get the support it needed to get out of the committee.”

After the meeting, Betsy Russell reported that Winder and House Speaker Scott Bedke have already filed a motion to have the Legislature intervene in a multistate lawsuit in Kentucky over the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates.

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House Bill 409

Aye (6): Bair, Bundy, Cook, Grow, Troy, Youngblood

Nay (12): Amador, Crabtree, Giddings, Green, Horman, Lent, Nash, Nate, Nye, Syme, Ward-Engelking, Woodward

Absent (2): Agenbroad, Riggs

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