BOISE — A panel of Idaho lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday banning affirmative action for state agencies, state contracting and public education.
The House State Affairs Committee passed the bill from Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott, sending it to the full House floor on a 12-3 party-line vote after hearing several members of the public testify in opposition.
Scott said the bill would prevent discrimination by banning schools, state and local governments from giving discriminatory or preferential treatment to women or minorities based on their race, sex, ethnicity or national origin.
She recounted an incident when she applied for a job and was told she’d probably be hired because they were hoping to hire several women. The comment caused her to withdraw her application.
“I wanted to be hired on my merits and the fact that I was a hard worker. This gentleman just saw me as a woman, and he needed to get five of them to fill the position,” said Scott, who is white. “I believe it’s deeply offensive to hire someone or not hire someone based on their race, sex, ethnicity and national origin. … Basically we just need to treat everybody equal and this language will do that.”
The committee room was packed, with all but one of the people who testified speaking in opposition to the bill.
Kathy Griesmyer, policy director for the ACLU of Idaho, said Scott’s bill misrepresents how affirmative action programs work. Such programs don’t grant preferences or create quotas, she said, don’t allow race or gender to be the only criteria used for hiring, and they allow the programs to exist only as long as necessary to remedy existing imbalances in the work environment.
Instead, affirmative action programs try to “make sure that those barriers to equal access to education and employment are removed so that all may flourish,” she said.
Fortune 500 companies and major Idaho employers like Micron, Simplot, Albertsons, Boise Cascade and Idaho Power have adopted affirmative action policies, Griesmyer noted.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that affirmative action bans are legal and nine states — Texas, Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, New Hampshire and Florida — have enacted such bans, though Texas’ ban was later reversed after a legal challenge.
Democratic Reps. John Gannon and Brooke Green, both of Boise, repeatedly attempted to question Scott about why the bill wouldn’t also ban discrimination or preferential treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer citizens.
Those questions were shut down by committee Chairman Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian. Harris said the questions weren’t appropriate because they didn’t address the bill.
Groups like Add The Words have fought in Idaho for more than a decade to add protections for LGBTQ residents to Idaho’s existing anti-discrimination laws; so far the Legislature has rejected those efforts.
Among the half-dozen people testifying against the bill Wednesday was Rabbi Dan Fink of Boise. Fink, speaking on behalf of the Interfaith Alliance, said, “Folks, if you think we are in a place where we do not need affirmative action, you were born on third base, and you think you hit a triple.”
Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, chair of Add the Words Idaho and an employee of Legal Voice, which works for women’s and LGBT rights, said, “We know that racism and sexism have not been eradicated from this country. We’ve seen the numbers. We have seen the stats. If you are paying attention, you know that this is a reality.”
Only one person, Scott Yenor, testified in favor of the bill. “There is obviously a deep problem when it comes to so-called diversity hires,” he said. “No one ever introduces ‘our diversity hire’ or ‘our affirmative action hire,’” he said, because it hurts the employee’s pride. He said inequities don’t always stem from discrimination. “They’re also traceable to differences between men and women,” he said. “Women may work less because they have different priorities than men.”
Mistie Tolman, state director of Planned Parenthood in Idaho, said, “Marginalized groups in Idaho are increasingly targeted … and have been fighting for years to achieve basic protections” in areas like housing and employment.
“Instead of banning popular and effective policies that promote equal opportunity, we encourage you to focus on legislation that will promote the health and well-being of Idahoans,” she said.
Gannon called for sending the bill to the House’s amending order, “so that we can amend and fix this bill.” But his move was voted down along party lines.
“As this bill stands now, this bill legislates discrimination, it is offensive, and any claim that this bill promotes equality for all is fake news,” Gannon declared. “In fact, the title of the bill says ‘shall not discriminate in certain instances.’ In other words, it implies that it is picking and choosing when discrimination is appropriate and when it is not appropriate. This is not the kind of legislation this state should engage in, and it is offensive.”
Green said, “Today we saw hypocrisy on full display.” She said she would continue to fight to expand discrimination protections to LGBTQ residents.