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Eye on Boise: 'Kids Matter Index' ranks Idaho lawmakers' votes on how they affect children

By BETSY Z. RUSSELL brussell@idahopress.com

Aug 14, 2021


BOISE - There are various groups that research and rate state lawmakers' voting records in Idaho, from the National Federation of Independent Business, which compiles voting records on small business issues; to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing lobbying group that opposes public schools and advocates disobedience to public health orders, among other stances. Now a new one has joined the mix, starting with the 2020 and 2021 Idaho legislative sessions: "Idaho Children Are Primary," which has developed the "Kids Matter Index."


The 501 c(4) nonprofit has an array of advisory board members, ranging from former Idaho first lady Patricia Kempthorne to former state Rep. Jarom Wagoner, R-Caldwell, to pediatricians, business leaders and educators. It was co-founded by Dr. Noreen Womack, a retired pediatrician, and Diane Schwarz, a retired CPA from Boise, and operates entirely on small in-kind donations and volunteer work.


"We're just doing the work," Schwarz said. "We want to create conversations with legislators, both sides, people we agree and disagree with; we want to be able to provide some data," including expertise on health care, housing, learning and more. 'We want to bring that kind of expertise to the legislators, so when they are making votes on kids, that they are fully informed and have all the stats in front of them," she said. "And then at the end of the session, kind of hold them accountable."


The group researched 10 bills in the 2020 session and shared its rankings only with the lawmakers at the end of the session; this year is the first time it's published its full Kids Matter Index on its website, idahochildrenareprimary.org. This year, it scored 20 bills.

The website says, "We are asking the question: Is this good for Idaho's kids?"


The 2021 index shows that a bipartisan group of 18 lawmakers earned a perfect score of 100. They included 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.


Among them were Treasure Valley Sens. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa and Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; and Reps. Steve Berch, D-Boise; Brooke Green, D-Boise; Chris Mathias, D-Boise; John McCrostie, D-Garden City; Colin Nash, D-Boise; Ilana Rubel, D-Boise; and Scott Syme, R-Nampa.


"I think overall, you can see a lot of positives," Schwarz said. "We had 59 legislators score 80% and above, which I think is generally supporting kids and families most of the time."


However, she said in some cases, ''The bills don't go far enough, so there's still a lot more work that needs to be done."


Former House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a retired physician who is among the group's volunteer advisory board members, said, "Our mission is to provide some expert and data­driven information on what the effects of those bills were," from child poverty to health, education and children's economic security. ''There's lots of interest groups, everything from very conservative organizations to water users and the Conservation League," he said. ''They all have a specific target area. But there is nobody who says, 'This is what this means to families with kids, to the kids themselves, and to the business community that's going to have to absorb those employees in the future."


The lowest score on the 2021 Kids Matter Index was a 36, a distinction held by Rep. Chad Christensen, R-lona. Seven lawmakers, including Treasure Valley Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, and current candidate for lieutenant governor Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, earned a score of 40.


One of the group's founding advisory board members, who's now taken "emeritus" status due to his current employment, was former Idaho Republican Party Chairman Trent Clark. He told Boise State Public Radio's "Idaho Matters" program last year, "Unfortunately, in this very highly polarized environment, there just was no voice out there that was saying, Wait, we need to pause and consider the effect that your actions in the Legislature have on kids."'


Schwarz said she became involved in the effort after moving from Washington state to Idaho in 2006, and finding the resources in her children's schools much poorer than those she'd left behind. She serves on the board of Idaho Voices for Children and started a non-profit called "Book It Forward Idaho" that's distributed hundreds of thousands of free books to kids in need.


"I just do a lot of community-based work," Schwarz said. That's included serving on the board of the Log Cabin Literary Center and on the finance committee for Life's Kitchen.


Volunteers designed the group's logo, which features a child's hand print, primary colors and the state's outline; put up the website; researched the bills for the index; and pulled the whole thing together. "We have no office space, we have no paid staff," Schwarz said.


"We want it to be used in the public sphere," she said, so citizens can ask their lawmakers, ''Why aren't you doing this for our kids?"


"Really," she said, "our big goal is to be able to hold people accountable."


Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.


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