Medicaid HB 277 hearing

Fred Birnbaum, with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, speaks during a hearing on the HB 277 Medicaid expansion sideboards bill in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho State Capitol, Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation likes to hold itself out as a serious, policy-minded group devoted to conservative and libertarian principles. But the controversy it has kicked off over diversity programs at Boise State University tells a different tale.

About two weeks ago, the Freedom Foundation called on BSU to drop a few modest measures aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion, describing them as part of a “radical social justice agenda.” They aren’t. They’re standard at public universities throughout the nation.

A group of lawmakers close to the Freedom Foundation, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, foolishly took the bait, signing on to a letter to BSU president Marlene Tromp, which made the highly dubious suggestion that small diversity programs with a few tens of thousands of dollars in funding were driving tuition hikes.

This sparked a highly public fight that is wholly out of proportion to the issue at hand, which is exactly what it was designed to do.

What this latest spat puts on display above all is the Freedom Foundation’s turn toward cynicism.

The folks at the Freedom Foundation consider themselves budget watchers, and they must know the size of BSU’s budget. So they obviously know that the cost of these programs is an undetectable drop in a more-than $200 million bucket. Anyone who can do arithmetic will immediately see the foolishness of the claim that it is driving tuition hikes.

But this isn’t the sort of fight where facts and reason matter much.

This isn’t the kind of debate Friedrich Hayek or Ludwig von Mises would engage in. This is the sort of fight President Donald Trump picks. The idea is to “trigger the libs” and entrench a feeling of tribal belonging by creating hostility to an outsider — an imagined group of coddled, entitled university students. A big fight like this is a good way to gain followers on social media and donations to keep the operation running.

But the Freedom Foundation’s cynicism could have a substantial negative impact on the state economy, and a particularly acute one here in eastern Idaho.

When attempting to draw top talent for such skilled positions, it is necessary to have a diverse workforce. Idaho National Lab, the keystone of the regional economy, relies on a highly diverse workforce drawn from the nation’s top science and engineering programs.

Recruiting skilled minorities to Idaho can be difficult. Because the Aryan Nations was headquartered in northern Idaho, and because they often know little else about the state, many Americans have a vague sense that there are Nazis here. Though that reputation is largely undeserved — the Aryan Nations weren’t welcome in the community they descended upon — it’s a perception the state has to combat by actively welcoming groups subject to societal discrimination.

The Legislature hasn’t been doing much to make the job easier.

Imagine recruiting a promising scientist with an LGBT child. Given that the state has failed to pass legislation adding sexual orientation and gender identity alongside race and religion as categories protected by state civil rights laws, will they feel their child will be welcome and safe here? Since they are sought-after employees, chances are they could get offers from labs in California, New Mexico or Illinois, all of which do have such civil rights laws.

Idaho Falls is ahead of much of the state in this regard, banning employment and housing discrimination for the LGBT community, but it has failed to protect against public accommodations discrimination — a problem the Idaho Falls City Council should address. Because why would those highly coveted scientists move to a place where their child might encounter the equivalent of a 1950s Alabama lunch counter?

And if the Legislature micromanages the state university system to tamp down on the few programs they have to encourage diversity, as Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, hinted might happen at a recent forum in Twin Falls, what message will that send?

The Freedom Foundation may wish to whip up the culture war and attack the independence of the university system for its own cynical reasons, but lawmakers should have the temperance and wisdom not to play along. Sacrificing the economy to the culture war may be good for political fundraising and growing your social media audience, but it is a disaster for the material future of this community.

We don’t expect better from the Freedom Foundation, but from our elected officials, we do.

The Post Register’s editorial board consists of Publisher Travis Quast, Managing Editor Monte LaOrange and editorial writer Bryan Clark. Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.