From left to right: Rep. Joe Alfieri, Sen. Ben Toews, Sen. Carl Bjerke, Rep. Ron Mendive, Rep. Vito Barbieri, Sen. Phil Hart.

Legislators Discuss State Sovereignty, Budget Process at Town Hall

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COEUR D’ALENE, IDAHO – Eleven of Kootenai County’s twelve legislators participated in a town hall event on Saturday, February 24, 2024, where they updated the community on the current legislative session. The recurring references to states asserting their sovereignty over the federal government in matters from education and law enforcement to elections and border security highlighted both the importance of representative government and the current struggles to limit the federal government to its proper constitutional authority.

The legislators were asked whether or not they support Texas ignoring the demands of the federal government concerning securing the border. 

“I generally support pushing back on the federal government from a state level,” said Sen. Doug Okuniewicz (R-Dist. 3). “There’s been way too much creep coming from the federal government. The state of Texas has a good claim to do what they think is best for their state in the absence of the federal government doing what they are supposed to do.”

“The state is the parent. The federal government is the child,” stated Rep. Dale Hawkins (R-Dist. 2). “States don’t need permission.”

“We need to reassert ourselves,” stated Joe Alfieri (R-Dist. 4). “Long ago we walked away from what the Constitution is supposed to provide us. States have the right to defend themselves.” All the legislators were in agreement that the crisis at the southern border is akin to an invasion. Alfieri gave the crowd a comparison to contemplate. In December, 300,000 illegals came across the border, while only 160,000 soldiers took part in the Normandy invasion during World War II. “This invasion is a global scheme to replace each and every one of us American citizens,” stated Alfieri.

“I think we still have things we can do to fight back before things get worse,” stated Sen. Carl Bjerke (R-Dist. 5). “What is happening in Texas is the first peek-a-boo of things getting worse.”

“If 25 states would activate their national guard and send them down to the border of Texas and Arizona, and close that border. It’s not rocket science how to close a border,” asserted Rep. Ron Mendive (LD5). “Every other nation in the world does it, and we help other nations to do it as well.” He went on to say that we need to admit that we are already in a constitutional crisis. “The states have to stand up, we are running out of time,” Mendive said.

Sen. Phil Hart (R-Dist. 2) is working to advance HB464 which is an interstate compact that would allow Idaho to enter into agreements with other states to take an active role in securing our border. Hart said the federal government has failed to secure the border and is “actually working against the states.” According to Hart, this legislation mimics one passed by Texas last year. Rep. Tony Wisniewski (R-Dist. 5) was the floor sponsor for HB464, which passed the house 48-20-2 on February 27, and is currently sitting in the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Senator Phil Hart addresses the crowd at the legislative town hall on Saturday, February 24, 2024, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Given the nature of the overreaching federal government, a question was asked about the possibility of holding an Article V Convention of States for term limits and a balanced budget. Rep. Jordan Redman (R-Dist. 3) is in favor of holding a convention, although the idea remains unpopular with local voters. Okuniewicz polled the audience and found roughly 75 percent are opposed to holding a convention of states. Regardless of one’s position on a convention, all the legislators acknowledged the federal government operates outside the limits established by the Constitution. Redman said he believes the Founders put Article V into the Constitution to address what is happening right now, and he specifically mentioned the invasion, the unsustainable debt, and the bureaucratic “fourth arm of government.”

There was discussion about the new budget process working its way through the legislature that Bjerke said “is not a welcome change for many of the establishment,” but is “a great way of dealing with budgets and providing more accountability and transparency for the citizens of the State of Idaho.” This new budget process allows legislators to dive down into the line items and gives an opportunity to tackle the growth in spending. “It makes it harder to slip in added expenditures without more scrutiny,” stated Okuniewicz. Wisniewski referred to legislators as “kids in a candy store” when it came to budgeting. Alfieri, who remains focused on election integrity issues, called the new budget process “revolutionary” and may be “the most significant thing that’s happened in Idaho in a long time.”

Senator Carl Bjerke discusses the legislative session at a town hall event on Saturday, February 24, 2024, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Rep. Ron Mendive on the right.

To put the massively expanded state budget into perspective, Rep. Vito Barbieri (R-Dist. 3) said the recently passed $5 billion maintenance budget for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is $1 billion more than the entire state budget from 14 years ago when he was first elected to office. Barbieri stressed the importance of the new budget process as a first-step in addressing the looming budgetary issues. Voters were reminded that the state is beholden to the federal government for “the lion’s share” of its budget dollars, mostly due to federal control of over 60 percent of Idaho lands which, according to Mendive, holds over $1 trillion in mineral wealth that cannot be accessed.

Rep. Elaine Price (R-Dist. 4) called the nearly 180 agencies within Idaho the “fourth branch of government” and said she is focused on what can be done to reign them in. Barbieri helped pass HB206 last session that asserts legislative authority over agency rules, a critical component to oversight, and the legislation already withstood a lawsuit from agencies that did not like the attempt to restrict their rule-making power.

Mendive and Barbieri pointed out the unique nature of the Kootenai County legislative contingent. Mendive thanked voters for sending a good team that works together to advance conservative policy, adding, “it hasn’t always been that way,” and Barbieri stated, “we have the conservative Christian perspective, which is not necessarily the majority of the Republican legislators in Idaho.”

Rep. Vito Barbieri speaks at the legislative town hall on Saturday, February 24, 2024, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Education reform is a top priority for several of the legislators, however, it is “a hard lift” in Idaho. “There seems to be a resistance to let go of your children,” stated Hawkins who sits on the House Education Committee. Wisniewski, Price, and Mendive are also part of the education committee and echoed Hawkins frustrations on the inability to pass education freedom legislation out of committee. Sen. Ben Toews (R-Dist. 4) said the bulk of the state budget goes to education and there’s “billions of dollars to maintain the status quo,” which is what hinders the advancement of education freedom and school choice. He wants the rights of citizens to be elevated over special interest groups.