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Bill adding extra penalties for assault on utility workers advances to Idaho House floor

Idaho State Capitol - 2021
Otto Kitsinger
/
Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Workers say they’ve seen uptick in violent incidents as they respond to outages

A bill that would add additional penalties for assault or battery upon utility workers is headed to the floor of the Idaho House of Representatives.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration committee voted to send Senate Bill 1321 to the House floor with a recommendation it passes.

If passed into law, the bill adds employees of public utilities and consumer-owned utility companies to a list of personnel protected by additional penalties if they are the victim of assault or battery. Utility companies and public utilities include power and electricity providers, water departments and gas companies. If the bill passes, battery with intent to commit a serious felony upon utility workers would be punishable by up to 25 years in prison. Under the bill, the penalties for assault and other offenses would be doubled.

Personnel already on that list include judges, police officers, marshals, correctional officers, emergency dispatchers, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation Department employees and emergency medical services providers.

Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, and Rep. Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, sponsored the bill after saying there has been an increase in confrontations, violence and threats made against utility workers over the past three or four years.

Eric York, a lineman with Idaho County Light and Power out of Grangeville, told the House committee he’s been a lineman for nine years and supports the bill because of a 2018 experience while he was working to supply power.

“I was parked on a county road and had a guy storm out of his house with a shotgun in hand and he hit me in the head with the shotgun, held the gun to my head until I gave him the keys to my rig and he got in my rig and drove off,” York testified. “He hit me hard enough in the head to where I was bleeding and had a mark there for quite some time.”

York said the suspect was caught and prosecuted and served 30 days in jail.

“He didn’t really get in too much trouble for it and from my perspective, I was just a lineman there doing my job on a county road and he had beef with us and was looking for a way to show that,” York testified.

York said he has had other incidents in the field, too.

“It seems like a gun is involved too many times, so I am very in favor of this bill,” York told the committee.

Jason Hudson of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, said utility workers often find themselves in dangerous situations alongside law enforcement or emergency responders. Utility workers may be called upon to shut off gas or electrical power before firefighters can enter a home to fight a fire. Utility workers are also sometimes called to restore power to neighborhoods and businesses after a driver crashes a vehicle into a powerline.

As such, Hudson said their jobs are essential and they may find themselves in volatile, stressful situations where they experience aggression or violent confrontations.

Two conservative legislators questioned the need to add additional penalties for assaulting utility workers after noting the other personnel on the list were first responders or agents of the state.

“Maybe allowing utility workers to exercise their Second Amendment rights would be an easier solution to this,” said Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg.

But most legislators on the committee voted in favor of advancing the bill, which passed 11-3.

“Those folks work round the clock selflessly to bring the power back on for those of us who live remotely as well as those that live in urban areas,” said Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee. “Those are just people doing their job.”

“It’s discouraging that this level of intimidation is being placed on these folks just trying to keep the power on,” Troy added.

With legislative leaders working toward their goal of wrapping up the 2022 legislative session at the end of the next week, the Idaho House could take the bill up at any time. If it passes the Idaho House, the bill would go to Gov. Brad Little’s desk to be signed into law, vetoed or allowed to become law without Little’s signature.

The Idaho Senate already voted 31-2 to pass the bill on March 1.