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Legislative guide: Understanding Boise State’s place in Idaho’s political arena

Illustration by Alieha Dryden

Though only a mile separates Boise State’s campus from the Idaho State Capitol building, the rift between the two entities has perhaps never been deeper than it was during the spring of 2021. In the longest legislative session in Idaho’s history, Idaho lawmakers proposed a plethora of controversial bills. When some failed, they returned to a favored topic: higher education.

Along with the mundane, bureaucratic affairs of a state government, legislators have also shouldered the responsibility of being cultural warriors. And Boise State has become enemy number one. In 2021, Boise State was targeted for indoctrination, with misinformation and conspiracy theories in abundance.

With the 2022 legislative session underway, it’s unclear how much the legislature will fixate on Boise State. But students need to know how the legislature works — and with the drama of last year, more eyes than ever will be focused on the granite and marble structure just down the street.

Makeup of the legislature

The words “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome” are likely to ring a bell for many Broncos, if not elicit a frustrated sigh or a quickened pulse. Political science professor Dr. Scott Yenor’s viral misogynistic speech from last November may have seemed almost laughable if not for his privileged position as a tenured faculty member.

But it’s important to note that among Idaho’s lawmakers, Yenor has many counterparts — though they may not be as fixated on “family issues” or ideology as he is. 

To understand the current political state that Idaho has found itself in (and by extension, the political state that Boise State has found itself in), it’s helpful to understand these legislators, who have moved the state legislature to the far right, creating divisions between moderate conservatives and members of the far-right.

Those divisions have shifted the conversation from closed-door bickering amongst people of the same party to outright political animosity. For example, the Take Back Idaho Committee is a PAC led by former state Republican officials who call their more radical counterparts “extremists” who have turned the state into a “laughingstock.” 

“This vocal minority has replaced civility and common sense with conspiracy theories, fringe views and cheap political theatre,” said Jennifer Ellis, a board member of the Take Back Idaho Committee in a statement to Boise State Public Radio.

The Idaho 97 Project was started in the midst of the 2021 regular legislative session for a similar purpose: “to stop the spread of hate, intimidation and misinformation in Idaho.”

These two groups and more are engaging with the 2022 regular legislative session, but they’re also preparing for an important date that is fast approaching: the May 17 primary election.

As an overwhelming majority of Idaho votes Republican, most elections in Idaho are decided in the Republican primary. And this year, every public office is up for election. Perhaps the most contested race will be the gubernatorial race between incumbent Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin. Already, opponents of McGeachin, who has catered to the far right, have urged all independents and Democrats to register Republican in order to vote for Little and defeat McGeachin. 

But down the ballot, Idaho’s far-right lawmakers are also in contest with more moderate Republicans, and could increase their hold on the Capitol.

Behind all of this push to the far right, undeniably, is the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). The IFF is a very powerful lobbying group that rates legislators on a “Freedom Index,” tracking representatives and Senators on their voting record to justify their score out of 100. Its sway over legislators, who don’t want to lose favor by voting against IFF’s interests and risk losing out to a primary election candidate who will, has mounted over the last several years.

Student testifying to an Idaho legislature board.
[Depiction of a citizen testifying in front of a legislative committee]
Illustration by Alieha Dryden | The Arbiter

2021 legislative session

Last year, the IFF presaged Boise State’s unsteady legislative session with a report — co-authored by none other than Scott Yenor — claiming to raise the alarm on indoctrination with proof of leftist radicalism and shaming at Boise State.

Legislators were surely ready to rail against Boise State before the report’s publication, but many of them cited it during budget conversations, with concerns over social justice.

What began in late January 2021 was a months-long back-and-forth over the higher education budget, with distractions all around. 

University president Dr. Marlene Tromp proposed a slight increase to the university’s budget — less even than Gov. Little recommended — to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), but quickly met resistance, particularly from far-right Reps. Ron Nate and Priscilla Giddings.

“Our constituents are upset and want some action taken, against BSU in particular,” said Nate (R-Rexburg).

Nate cited concerns over the university’s contract with the Boise Police Department, which he falsely claimed had been terminated, and the university’s controversy with Big City Coffee. 

“What we have is an agenda of serving our students and serving our state,” Tromp said.

Weeks later, JFAC settled uneasily on a $409,000 budget cut for Boise State, while far-right lawmakers proposed a cut in the tens of millions.

Almost immediately after, all University Foundations (UF) courses were suspended after an allegation of humiliation and degradation of a student during a discussion about race surfaced. It’s safe to say that if this had not happened during the legislative session, the decision to suspend the courses likely would have been postponed, or never made. 

The allegation also never proved to be valid. An investigation by an external law firm later found no evidence of wrongdoing or policy violation. But while classes were allowed to resume virtually just a week after the allegation, many students who likely hadn’t paid much attention to politics before now had their lives interrupted by it. 

Similarly, the emergence of the debate over critical race theory worried many educators and free speech advocates. 2020 was spent discussing race and COVID-19; the legislature began 2021 by trying to shut down conversations about both. Particularly in the classroom, a “nondiscrimination” bill, House Bill 377, was signed into law, though educators remain unsure of how seriously to take it.

With the legislative session finally wrapping to a tumultuous and incomplete close, the legislature passed a final version of the higher education budget, which included a $1.5 million cut to Boise State’s funds. Tromp was confident that the university could absorb this with cost-saving measures, but it was still a stinging end to an exhausting session for the university.

2022 legislative session

With the new session fully underway, all eyes are on the legislature to determine what their course of action will be, whether they will seek out headline-grabbing controversy, or if they will try to quickly wrap up the session to return to their districts for their primary elections.

However, if the actions of the IFF are any indication, as they were last year, education, including higher education, will remain a central target of the legislature. The IFF’s director, Wayne Hoffman, wants all public education to be abolished. Public higher education has drawn special ire, though, and likely will continue to.

Though the day-to-day political happenings of a state government may not seem very important to many students, the scrutiny that has been applied to Boise State makes it worthwhile to return some of the legislature’s attention.

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