Zollinger learns the Legislature’s ropes

Idaho Rep. Bryan Zollinger (R, Idaho Falls) photographed at the state Capitol on Thursday, January 26, 2017. (Otto Kitsinger for the Post Register)

Zollinger is a former wrestler and wrestling coach. He said the sport taught him good lessons for the Legislature. “You learn to respect (opponents), even though you disagree with their positions,” he said. Otto Kitsinger / for the Post Register

BOISE — Rep. Bryan Zollinger is about halfway through his first legislative session.

The Idaho Falls Republican replaced retired Rep. Linden Bateman earlier this year after winning a primary election against Idaho Falls City Councilman David Smith and a general election against retired Idaho National Laboratory employee George Morrison.

“I think my favorite part is learning something new every day,” Zollinger, a 40-year-old lawyer, said. “We study topics that you just wouldn’t have time to study.”

On arriving at the Legislature, Zollinger quickly aligned himself with the most conservative wing of the House. He’s one of only five lawmakers to have a 100 percent score on the Freedom Index, meaning he has voted in favor of every bill the Idaho Freedom Foundation scored positively and against every bill it scored negatively.

But Zollinger hasn’t been hewing totally to the line of some of the House’s most conservative members. For example, he voted in favor of a yearly bill that brings Idaho tax law in line with federal tax law. That measure is particularly important for farmers and married couples who file jointly.

The other Freedom Index high scorers — Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg; Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony; Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian; and Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard — cast protest votes against the bill because it requires state tax law to recognize gay marriage. But Zollinger supported it.

Zollinger said he was surprised by the work schedule, sometimes 14 hours per day, and by how much of that time is spent at social events with lobbyists.

“It seems like every day there are two receptions and a dinner, so the time has been crazy,” he said.

He said, somewhat grudgingly, that it’s probably useful for him to get to know the fleet of lobbyists who exercise a powerful hand in writing state laws. But he says he’d usually rather eat ramen for dinner on his hotel couch.

“Working a room isn’t my specialty,” he said.

That’s a telling piece of information about Zollinger’s views on the role of a legislator: His primary focus is on evaluating laws and deciding whether he should vote for them, rather than on building coalitions that will support laws he favors.

Zollinger said he often votes no on bills that authorize activities he doesn’t believe fall within the proper role of state government. He cites the Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine, the 19th century proto-libertarian Frédéric Bastiat and former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Ezra Taft Benson as key influences for his views on the subject.

Zollinger said he’s been disappointed with the direction of the session so far.

“It’s been frustrating to me because I think we’re growing government in a lot of respects,” he said.

For example, Zollinger doesn’t like a proposal to license sign language interpreters. The bill’s sponsors say that unqualified interpreters have led to consequential errors in communication, but Zollinger sees in licensure a measure to limit free market competition.

“I think most licensure is about protectionism — people trying to protect their jobs,” Zollinger said.

But Zollinger says he does his best to stick to his principles without being overly divisive. A former wrestler and wrestling coach, Zollinger said the solo sport taught him to respect his opponents.

“We’re friends, but we disagree on issues,” he said. “You learn to respect those people, even though you disagree with their positions.”

Zollinger initially planned to introduce two bills this session. One, passed on to him by Bateman, would add a set of Idaho history questions to the state’s civics test. Another would have given doctors some level of immunity from liability when they offer charity health care. Zollinger said it would mean that doctors could provide free care without risk.

“I want to find a balance so doctors can provide free care, but if a doctor cuts off the wrong leg or something, there probably should be some kind of … insurance fund or something,” he said.

Zollinger said he plans to keep working on the bill and come back with something to pitch in 2018.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.