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Idaho’s public utilities report an uptick in worker assaults. This bill adds penalties for it.

Men up pole working on power lines
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After hearing testimony about a recent increase in cases of assault and battery against public utility workers in Idaho, the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee advanced a bill adding extra penalties for those crimes. (Getty Images)

Lobbyists say cases of assault and battery are occurring statewide on a monthly basis

After hearing testimony about a recent increase in cases of assault and battery against public utility workers in Idaho, the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee advanced a bill that would add public utility workers to a section of Idaho Code that has extra penalties for assault against certain personnel.

Senate Bill 1321 is sponsored by Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, and the penalties are doubled from Idaho’s usual punishments for assault when committed against certain public servants, including judges, police officers, prison employees and others.

Jason Hudson, a lobbyist for the Idaho AFL-CIO, told the committee the problem is occurring statewide.

“We have sheriff’s office reports from Grangeville to Grandview to Rigby. This is occurring across the state, across different utilities, and it does seem to be increasing in frequency,” Hudson said. “I have talked to several people who have been in the industry for many, many years across the state and almost universally what I hear is, there’s always been problems out there, but in the last five years it’s gotten a whole lot worse.”

Public utility workers include electrical and water services, and incidents often happen when a worker is conducting maintenance on an electrical line, working on a public water resource such as a canal or reading an energy meter.

Hudson said 15 other states have already passed enhanced penalty laws specifically for protecting public utility workers. If the law does pass, Hudson said he hopes to partner with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission on an education campaign about the new penalties in hopes it will deter potentially violent actors.

The committee also heard testimony from Eric York, an Idaho public utility worker who said he had a shotgun held to his head until he gave up the keys to his company vehicle.

“(The person) hit me hard enough with the barrel of the shotgun to where I had the barrel mark, and I bled down my face,” York said. “I was not going to give him the keys to that rig, but he held it there until I did.”

Will Hart, lobbyist for the Idaho Consumer Owned Utilities Association, said his association supports the bill, along with Idaho Power. Hart said he has been working with the association for 13 years and had never heard of the issue until recently.

“In the last three or four years, it seems like every month in our boardroom, one of my managers tells me about an incident where someone was working on a line or doing a meter read … and some incident of some kind happened,” Hart said. “It is not often you see one of us electrical lobbyists come in and ask to do something for our folks on the ground. We heard their cry, and we’re here trying to get some protection for them.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said Idaho’s assault statutes are too weak overall, and Sen. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, said she agreed.

“I’m thinking about ditch riders and other people who don’t necessarily serve public utilities, but I’ve seen some pretty heated stuff happen if the ditch breaks or the canal breaks … and a farmer can’t get his water and he’s going to be late,” Zito said. “Maybe in general (our battery laws) need to be strengthened.”

The bill now heads to the Senate floor for a full vote.