The question is not why 49 Idaho House members — 35 Republicans and 14 Democrats — voted to stop a legal scheme that victimizes the poor, the sick and the injured.
The question is why 20 House Republicans — among them Reps. Priscilla Giddings of White Bird, Mike Kingsley of Lewiston, Paul Shepherd of Riggins and Thyra Stevenson of Nezperce — would stand with the predators.
They follow the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
Why else would those 20 Republicans turn a blind eye to a business, Medical Recovery Services, and the lawyers involved — GOP activist Bryan Smith and state Rep. Bryan Zollinger, both of Idaho Falls — who attach wildly disproportionate legal fees to unpaid medical bills?
For instance, a $294 bill expanded to more than $5,000 once the lawyers got done.
Why else would those 20 Republicans ignore their own political pedigree? After all, you don’t find many Republicans standing for unbridled litigation. Isn’t it the Idaho GOP that championed so-called tort reform to limit legal judgments?
And why else would 20 Republicans dismiss Frank VanderSloot? That’s never a smart political manuever. The billionaire owner of Melaleuca Inc. is a prolific campaign contributor, a frequent culture warrior and a man with a long memory.
He got incensed at how Smith and Zollinger targeted people — including some of his own employees — who were unable to fight back. As the Idaho Falls Post Register noted last summer: “Debt collectors generally employ full-time attorneys. The people they sue often can’t afford lawyers. And a big part of the debt collection business model relies on that power imbalance.”
First, VanderSloot established a $1 million legal defense fund.
Then he promoted House Bill 515, which would put a big crimp in the legal fees Smith and Zollinger can collect — $350 in uncontested cases and $750 in those that are disputed.
Lacking the capacity for shame that would have silenced others with a less apparent conflict of interest, Zollinger took to the floor for about 40 minutes on Monday to argue in favor of his own personal profit.
He also let the cat out of the bag. Zollinger took the rare step of reminding colleagues that the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Index would ding every one of them who voted against him.
The index rated the bill a negative 9.
If you’re a Republican incumbent seeking to avoid getting tainted as a moderate or even a RINO (Republican in Name Only) just as the GOP primary is heating up, the last thing you want is a mediocre Freedom Index score. Such a heavily weighted vote all but guarantees it.
The point was not lost among House Republicans who debated in favor of the measure, such as Reps. Rod Furniss of Rigby and Doug Ricks of Rexburg.
The odd thing is the IFF hasn’t pulled out such heavy artillery for five years. Other than Moscow Democratic Sen. David Nelson’s attempt to make electronic repair parts available to consumers, no other measure has drawn a negative 9 since 2015.
Not tax incentives for economic development.
Not new occupational licensing requirements.
Not adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act.
Not burdening the oil and gas industry with more reporting requirements.
When the Freedom Index throws its weight around, it’s usually for something like Obamacare. Any lawmaker who backed then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s state-based health insurance exchange in 2013 felt the pain — voting for the House bill carried a negative 31; voting for the Senate measure meant a negative 21.
Or it involves new taxes. Voting for new fuel taxes and registration fees for transportation in 2015 netted lawmakers who did so a negative 21. Supporting a streamlined sales tax — in other words, working toward taxing e-commerce — was scored a negative 10 in 2013.
That’s what you’d expect from a conservative organization.
But why would it jump into a private fight in such a big way?
IFF’s President Wayne Hoffman insists HB 515 just hit the right regulatory buttons and all the constitutional knobs in the Freedom Index scoring matrix.
If so, it’s awfully convenient. Otherwise, you’d have to wonder how much Smith had to do with it.
Not only is the unsuccessful 2nd district congressional candidate the current Idaho Republican Party second vice chairman, he also sits on the IFF board.
So does Smith’s political ally, former Bonneville County GOP Chairman Doyle Beck, also of Idaho Falls.
Hoffman doesn’t tell you where his organization gets its money, so you can’t be sure if Smith and Beck are among the Freedom Foundation’s contributors.
But here’s a guess. VanderSloot isn’t one of them. — M.T.