Legislative notebook: Suicide, state of the state and sexual harassment

BOISE — This week, the first of the 2018 legislative session, state officials and lawmakers:

• Dealt with news, both tragic and shocking.

On the first day of the session, members of the Idaho House received tragic news. Former Rep. Brandon Hixon, a Caldwell Republican, had taken his own life.

Hixon had resigned late last year after news broke that he was under police investigation for some kind of sexual misconduct. Rumors began to fly.

Hixon appeared to spiral out of control after his resignation. He was twice arrested for driving under the influence in the few months between his resignation and his death.

Shortly after news of the suicide was released, more information emerged about the alleged sexual misconduct.

Hixon’s ex-wife told the Associated Press that he had been under investigation for molesting two young girls, and in one case the abuse, including rape, was alleged to have gone on for more than a decade. She described Hixon’s suicide as cowardly, and said it had denied the victims their day in court. She had been scheduled to testify before a grand jury on Wednesday.

The news left lawmakers and others at the capitol shaken and conflicted. Many said it reminded them to focus on the important things in their lives.

• Heard the governor’s final state of the state.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter gave his 12th and final annual address to the Legislature on Monday, outlining his priorities for his last year in office. He put particular emphasis on continuing commitments to education, a push for income tax cuts and a final attempt to get some aid to Idahoans in the Medicaid gap.

Otter also laid out a governing philosophy developed through decades in elected office. At a news conference, he said he had initially acted like “Dr. No” when serving in the state Legislature, but he felt it had accomplished little.

“To dither rather than decide is to shirk our duty and betray the public’s trust,” Otter said.

Otter called for lawmakers to embrace compromise.

• Received training on sexual harassment.

An unprecedented number of women, and some men, across the country have come forward in recent months to reveal allegations of sexual harassment against public figures. The movement came to be called “me too.”

In light of the moment, the House and Senate convened mandatory training on the subject of sexual harassment this week, led by Susan Buxton, administrator of the Department of Human Resources, and Colleen Zahn, a deputy attorney general serving in the civil litigation division.

The presentation delved in depth into workplace harassment law in Idaho, but some lawmakers were left scratching their heads about how those laws apply in the Idaho Capitol, where working relationships are much different than those in a traditional workplace.

The Legislature also has taken some preliminary steps to update policies related to harassment in the Capitol, laying out a draft policy that defines who harassment complaints can be reported to, depending on whether the victim is a lawmaker, a lobbyist or someone else.

Next week:

Debate on the public schools budget may begin. In the next few weeks, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget, will begin working through proposals for public schools. While schedules aren’t yet finalized, it’s possible that review of the public schools budget could begin early next week. When the issue does come before committee, it’s likely to provoke some hard debate about a set of money called “discretionary funding.” Otter has called for those funds (which districts decide how to spend) to remain flat, while Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra wants $14 million more.

Quote of the week:

“We should support those who are close to us when they are struggling. Please remember Brandon’s family in your prayers.”

— House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, on the suicide of former Rep. Brandon Hixon

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.