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Idaho House balks at bill to make nonpartisan staff the custodians of public records

Idaho Legislators 2022
Otto Kitsinger
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Legislators work from the House chamber at the Idaho Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The bill may be rewritten as early as Thursday

The Idaho House of Representatives tied itself in knots Wednesday as it considered a public records bill, then sent the proposal back to committee, possibly killing it for the year.

The dustup had to do with Senate Bill 1339, which would designate the nonpartisan Idaho Legislative Services Office as the custodian of legislative records and specify public records requests should be made through that office.

The bill essentially writes current practice into law. Although legislators may respond to and fulfill requests for their records — and some legislators insist on handling their own requests — such requests are generally routed through and fulfilled by legislative staffers in order to save legislators the time and effort.

The Legislative Services Office’s role is to work on budget and policy analysis, to assist in researching and drafting legislation, to perform some audits and handle information technology. Its staff has experience carrying out Idaho’s public records law.

Trouble for the bill started early in the Idaho House on Wednesday. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, objected to the traditional request to waive reading the bill aloud on the floor. That forced the House clerk to read the 24-page bill aloud, line by line.

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, tried to intervene and requested the clerk stop reading after several minutes, but Scott objected again.

Then, Scott interrupted the reading to make a motion to send the bill out for possible amendments.

Scott and Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, both opposed the bill as written.

Scott incorrectly characterized the bill as a measure to take away legislators’ access to their own private records.

“We lose complete control of our personal records,” Scott said.

The bill applies to public records, such as legislative emails or any notes or writings related to public business or policy. The bill does not apply to private, personal records. Existing Idaho law includes exemptions to protect privacy and some exemptions that apply specifically to legislators’ emails.

After some back-and-forth on the House floor, legislators opted to take a recess for a few hours to discuss the public records bill among themselves, behind closed doors.

When legislators returned to the floor Wednesday afternoon, they pulled the bill off the floor and returned it to the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. Because of the timing — GOP leaders are working to adjourn on Friday — sending the bill to committee may have the effect of killing it.

Before being sidetracked in the Idaho House, the bill passed the Idaho Senate without controversy on a 32-1 vote on March 3.

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. Thursday and may consider introducing a reworked version of the public records bill.