Now hiring. Atheists need not apply.

By Devon Downey, Idaho Reports


Atheists in Idaho law enforcement are forced to lie.

They are forced to lie before they even start their job, and they must do so while signing a code of ethics.

Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Division Administrator Victor McCraw would like to change that.

All POST officers must abide by and sign the ethics code, which states “I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession – law enforcement.” The phrase “before God” drew the objections of an applicant, who argued that it was ironic that they would have to lie while signing an ethics form.

McCraw consulted with a Deputy Attorney General and the POST Council about potential changes to the code of ethics that removed the religious language.

An unnamed Deputy Attorney General told McCraw that the language would be a constitutional issue. If challenged in a lawsuit, McCraw recounted, POST would lose. When reached for comment, the Attorney General’s office said they had no formal position on this issue.

The POST Council requested McCraw change the language. McCraw recommended “before God” be replaced by “with sincere and unfaltering commitment.” A divided POST Council agreed.

On January 15th, McCraw presented the rule change came to the House Judiciary and Rules committee.

Representative Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, objected to the change, criticizing the removal of references to God and questioned whether other sections of the code could be removed based on objections.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, asked why objectors couldn’t use a different code. McCraw stated that it was something that the council considered, but that they wanted a universal code for all officers.

Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, attempted to stop the rule change. “The founding documents of our country and state are based on the belief of a supreme being,” Zito told Idaho Reports.

“Removing God because of fear of litigation is not a sound reason,” said Zito. “I support providing an optional oath for those who do not believe in God. I also believe it is important to protect the strong belief in God of those in my district and our state.”

The committee did not accept the changes that removed “before God.” They allowed all other changes to pass. Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, was the only one to disagree.

The “basis of the constitution is the separation of church and state. Government can’t impose who to pledge to,” said Wintrow. “It’s unconstitutional. [That’s] not me [saying that], it’s the AG saying it. God’s most important gift is choice.”

“It’s unconstitutional. [The pledge] is a religious test to gain employment”, explained Kathy Griesmyer, Policy Director of the ACLU of Idaho. Griesmyer cited Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) where the Supreme Court said, “[w]e repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person ‘to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.’”

Since the House did not approve the changes, the code of ethics still includes the “before God” pledge. McCraw noted that POST would be unable to make any changes until the end of the legislative session. When the session ends, they will temporarily change the pledge to add “or with sincere and unfaltering commitment”. Then the POST committee will have to decide what changes to present to the legislature in 2019.

The ACLU, POST, and at least one person in the attorney general’s office believe the current POST rules are unconstitutional. Now, it’s up to the 2019 Legislature to decide what happens next.



Federal sign-off on Idaho solution? Wait and see.

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Two health care plans — one an executive order on health insurance, and one a legislative proposal on Medicaid waivers — are touted as Idaho solutions to rising health care costs.

But sometimes, even state solutions need permission from the federal government. Right now, there’s no guarantee that permission will come.

In a Thursday interview with Idaho Reports, Idaho Department of Insurance Director Dean Cameron said both the executive order and the dual waiver proposal would need sign-off from the feds. When asked if he was confident that blessing would come, Cameron answered “We’ll see, won’t we?”

The executive order directs Cameron to create guidelines for insurance plans to be sold in Idaho that wouldn’t necessarily meet the mandates outlined in the Affordable Care Act. That wouldn’t need permission from the feds so much as the federal government’s inaction — in other words, declining to come after Idaho for non-compliant plans.

“We believe that when the president and Congress… repealed the individual mandate, that meant consumers didn’t have to buy ACA compliant plans,” Cameron said. “That means they can buy something else.”

But that belief hasn’t yet been tested, Cameron said.

The federal government has a few chances to comment on Idaho’s plans: When Idaho issues its guidelines, and when insurance companies create insurance plans to fit those guidelines. Right now, Cameron is working on putting together guidelines for insurance providers on what must be covered.

Jon Hanian, spokesman for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, pointed to President Donald Trump’s inclination toward deregulation as a sign of hope for the Idaho efforts.

“We have been and continue to be in constant contact with federal officials on this issue. They’re asking questions and we’re answering.”

“As of right now, they’re taking a wait-and-see approach,” Hanian said.

Another proposal, more uncertainty

The dual waiver proposal also needs sign-off — and unlike the executive order, it requires the federal government to take action.

Here’s how it works: One waiver would allow individuals with incomes under 100 percent of the federal poverty line to receive cost-share reductions and tax credits meant for buying insurance on the private market. The other waiver allows Idahoans with “medically complex diagnoses” — essentially, long-term conditions that are expensive to treat — to move to Medicaid.

The federal government hasn’t OKed the first part of the proposal regarding the tax credits. Without that first waiver, the second part of the proposal doesn’t work.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who also signed the executive order, emphasized the difference between the insurance executive order and the Medicaid dual waiver legislative proposal.

“Of course, (the feds) are in the same place,” Little said. “Everyone was expecting a repeal and replace, and all we’ve done is kind of banged up the Affordable Care Act.”

Cameron and Hanian said despite the uncertainty on both proposals, the Department of Insurance is in constant contact with DC.

“We’re… trying to walk a fine line between what would be acceptable and what would be unacceptable to the federal government,” Cameron said.

“We’re in touch with them every step of the way so that it doesn’t run into any problems and it would avoid any potential” issues, Hanian said.

The Jan. 19th episode of Idaho Reports also featured Rep. Fred Wood, chairman of the House Health and Welfare committee, and Sen. Maryanne Jordan, member of the Senate Health and Welfare committee, discussing the merits of the proposals.

We’ll have much more on health care throughout the season. You can watch the full episode of Idaho Reports here, or watch the extended interview here.


Idaho Reports web extra: Full interviews from Jan. 19th episode

You’d think we’d be able to fit three segments into an hour-long show, but this week, the conversations were too interesting to cut short. Both of our panel discussions — one on sexual harassment and respectful workplace policies, and one on the two Idaho health care proposals — went longer than we’d anticipated, and both were too interesting to put on the shelf.

So if our weekly show wasn’t enough, here are the full interviews.




IDP data director resigns after domestic battery charge

Updated 3:35 pm, Jan. 18, with information on Hamilton’s resignation.

Updated 10:00 am, June 14, with information on Hamilton’s case. In May, Hamilton was acquitted of all charges.  


By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The data director for the Idaho Democratic Party resigned Thursday after being charged with domestic battery.

Tom Hamilton, former political director for the party, was arrested and charged with domestic battery on Jan. 7th.  (June 14, 2018 update: In May, Hamilton was found not guilty on all charges.)

hamiltonEarlier in the week, Idaho Reports had asked the Idaho Democratic Party whether Hamilton was still employed after the party learned about the charges.

“Right when we found out, we placed him on administrative leave,” Shelby Scott, communications director for the Idaho Democratic Party, said Tuesday. “The alleged incident happened outside of work hours and did not involve any members of the IDP organization.”

Scott added Hamilton was still being paid, but had been locked out of his work accounts.
On Tuesday, Scott and Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Bert Marley declined to comment on whether Hamilton would continue to be employed by the party.

“As of right now he has been placed on administrative leave, and I believe that the chairman will come to a decision,” Scott said Tuesday. “We take all of these allegations seriously, and we want to make sure people know we are taking this seriously. Any sort of incidents like this or any sort of arrest, we need to take a look at what’s going on there, and this is obviously no different.”

Ultimately, Hamilton resigned, and Marley accepted his resignation, Scott said Thursday.

The Idaho Democratic Party has previously criticized Republicans for supporting candidates with a history of domestic violence. In 2014, then-Idaho Democratic Party communications director Dean Ferguson attacked Republican support for Rep. Greg Chaney after Chaney’s past domestic battery charges came to light.

“The Idaho Democratic Party says Idaho families and Idaho children ‘deserve your support,’” Ferguson wrote. “Gov. Otter owes Idaho to explain why he endorses a candidate with Greg Chaney’s recent criminal history. Gov. Otter needs to tell Idaho families why he wants Chaney to vote on laws that affect the safety of Idaho families and Idaho children.”

Hamilton didn’t return messages for comment.

According to court documents, Hamilton posted a $500 bond two days later, on Jan. 9th. He has a pretrial hearing scheduled for Feb. 26th.


Melissa Davlin contributed to this report. 


Resources for sexual abuse survivors and those having suicidal thoughts

Here on Idaho Reports, we’d already been planning multiple stories and discussions this season related to mental health, crisis centers, and suicide in our state. And of course, there’s a grim cross-over between childhood sexual abuse, depression, and suicide. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are two to four times more likely to attempt suicide.

But that’s preventable, and there’s help for survivors of sexual abuse. Brandon Hixon’s death has forced both of these uncomfortable topics into the spotlight this week. And perhaps one of the reasons they’re so uncomfortable is we don’t talk enough about sexual abuse. We don’t talk enough about suicide. We don’t talk enough about mental health issues.

The terrible circumstances surrounding Hixon’s death shouldn’t make us shy away from these conversations. So we’re going to have them. And it might be awkward at times, but it’s important. On this week’s Idaho Reports, following Gov. Otter’s recommendation of opening three additional crisis centers across the state, we’re focusing on suicide prevention. 

This isn’t just because of Brandon Hixon, but because of the thousands of Idahoans who are touched by the tragedy of suicide every year.

If you or anyone you know is in emotional crisis, you can contact the Idaho Suicide Helpline at 208-398-4357, or visit their website.  

And for resources for victims and survivors of sexual abuse, you’ll find links to resources on the attorney general’s website.   In addition, Faces of Hope offers multiple services for victims, including group therapy, legal assistance, and emergency housing. You can find out more on their website. 


After Hixon’s death, some reflection

By Melissa Davlin

In November, producer Seth Ogilvie and I were in Challis for work, when Ogilvie ran into Brandon Hixon in the parking lot of our roadside motel. They exchanged brief looks, then Hixon left without saying a word. We learned from the woman working the front desk that he was on his way to his hometown of Salmon.


Brandon Hixon

Under different circumstances, I imagine Hixon would have been happy to see us. We had a good working relationship, and he was always eager to tell us about upcoming legislation he was working on.

But this chance meeting was different. Hixon had just resigned two weeks prior, as news had broken he was under investigation for alleged sexual abuse. A month later, he would be arrested for the driving under the influence.

And a few weeks after that, Hixon died by suicide.

We have a small press corps in Idaho. We have fantastic access to our elected officials. That doesn’t stop us from holding them accountable when they’re accused of impropriety, or worse.

But we also know they’re human beings, with lives outside of politics and policy. Sometimes, those lives are messy.

Hixon faced serious accusations, and this tragedy doesn’t excuse the gravity of those. That wouldn’t be fair to the alleged victims, or any victims of abuse.

As of Tuesday, Hixon faced no charges related to that investigation — just charges related to two episodes of driving under the influence. And let’s be clear. Those charges are also  serious. Drunken driving kills.

But that wasn’t the only part of Hixon’s story. When I first met him in fall of 2012, he had recently turned 30, and was quick to tell me that he would be the youngest serving lawmaker in the Idaho legislature. He was proud of that. Hixon was ambitious, and he viewed himself as a rising star in the Republican party.

He had children. He had family. He had friends here in the legislature. I’ve spoken to some of those colleagues, who are grieving even as they acknowledge, and struggle with, the accusations he faced.

Those are complicated feelings,. We can recognize the grave dangers of drunk driving and the damage caused by sexual abuse, while also wishing Hixon’s family and friends comfort.

We can also acknowledge the importance of mental health care. When mental health and suicide came up at Friday’s Associated Press preview, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill stressed the importance of family, friends and schools offering support.

That’s important, but the burden of preventing deaths doesn’t, and shouldn’t, rest solely with loved ones. Idaho has the lowest number of psychiatrists per capita in the United States, and has the fifth highest suicide rate. As Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter requested the opening of three new crisis centers throughout the state, others questioned whether that would be enough. We still have a rural doctor shortage. We still have tens of thousands of uninsured Idahoans. Hixon’s death might not make a difference in those policy discussions, but today, it’s on everyone’s minds.

Tragedies don’t always offer lessons or silver linings. Sometimes, events are just awful and sad. But if anything comes out of Hixon’s death, let it be this: If you see someone struggling, reach out.

If you or anyone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 to speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 1-208-398-4357 to speak to someone at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline.


This week on Idaho Reports: Tiny towns, big challenges

Two lock-down situations at the Mackay health center prompted the clinic CEO to threaten to shut down the center, leaving a small Idaho community questioning the balance between public safety, conservative spending and the will of voters.

The incidents, first discovered by Idaho Reports via Mackay City Council meeting minutes, took place between August 2016 and January 2017. Both happened at the Mackay Clinic of the Lost River Medical Center. In February, CEO Brad Huerta approached the city council, saying he may close the clinic if officials didn’t improve law enforcement services.

Though the community criticized the response times, those same residents recently voted down a tax levy increase that could have paid for an additional county deputy to patrol the area, highlighting the challenge of providing emergency services in rural areas with decreasing populations. And that challenge isn’t unique to Custer County.

We’ll have more on this story on this week’s Idaho Reports. Also on tonight’s show: Lobbyists Seth Grigg of the Idaho Association of Counties, Kathy Griesmyer of ACLU-Idaho, and Brian Whitworth of the Idaho Hospital Association give us a preview of their legislative priorities. We distill the highlights from the Associated Press’s legislative preview with Gov. Otter and legislative leadership. Finally, Bill Spence of the Lewiston Tribune, Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News and Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review join the pundits.