“What’s wrong with the Idaho Legislature?”
I’ve been asked that question often since leaving the Capitol in May.
Prior to arriving in Boise in January, I was told to expect a vastly different environment than what I had experienced during my previous two terms in the legislature from 2006-2010. They were right.
Now, 11 years later, Idaho’s majority party is almost unrecognizable. It’s influenced by extreme-right organizations bullying their way into Idaho politics: anti-government, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Bundyites and sympathizers to all of these groups.
One organization is particularly dangerous. It has more sheer influence over the majority party, vote after vote, than any grassroots organization, special interest group, lobbying effort or think tank: the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF).
IFF and its Freedom Caucus — made up of nearly a quarter to a third of the House — work in tandem to pressure Republicans who would otherwise vote according to their values, life experiences and constituents’ needs. IFF rates bills throughout the session and ranks legislators accordingly. Those with top rankings receive IFF’s high praise.
Those who fail to show loyalty are attacked viciously through social media, newsletters and in the press by IFF and its disciples — some of the state’s angriest and most aggressive residents — during the session and primary elections. IFF is often the only voice filling the space on important bills, and there are increasingly fewer Republican legislators willing to buck this unofficial system.
We surrendered a $6 million federal grant for our struggling child care providers at a critical juncture when working parents are trying to earn a living and raise their kids. They needed the help being offered, and the Legislature took it away because IFF told them to do it.
And because IFF spread false and pernicious lies about the existence of critical race theory, we struggled to pass even basic budgets for our universities, all while Idaho is experiencing unprecedented budget surpluses.
IFF’s system means the most extreme bills get hearings, traction and passed. Some die in the Senate. But the reality is as the volume of crazy bills the House passes increases, the number of those signed into law also increases.
My experience and observations tell me this: Idaho is in trouble unless we chart a different path.
The utopia IFF seeks to create guarantees Idaho’s largest employers will choose to relocate to other states. Our children and grandchildren — our best and brightest — will become our biggest export. What will be left? People who are intolerant of anyone different. People who ignore data, facts and science. People who are extremists, and yes, even racists. That is an Idaho we cannot accept.
Until recently, at least, Idaho had been a destination for young professionals seeking fair wages and challenging careers, young families who enjoy the lifestyle provided by our access to public lands and retirees wanting a sense of community and belonging. When I think of that progress, I see hope for the future. But we’re at a turning point.
If we ignore this crossroads, our democratic institutions will be damaged beyond repair. Imagine if an IFF loyalist gets elected governor, or if the next speaker shows IFF fealty. He or she will appoint committee chairs loyal to IFF, and IFF legislation will be given priority.
We all must remain vigilant, get involved and support candidates — Republican, Democrat, Independent — who reflect real Idaho values.
This will end, but when? Will it collapse under its own weight in 10-15 years after Idaho is unrecognizable, or do we end it in the next two years, while the state we love still exists?
It’s up to us.
— Rep. James Ruchti was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 2020, representing District 29.