Ag bill moves forward

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The bill that would allow inmates to work in all areas of agriculture passed the Idaho Senate Wednesday.

S1208, introduced by Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, passed almost unanimously, with only one dissenter.

In 2014, Lodge brought forward a bill that would allow inmates to work in “the production, harvesting and processing of perishable agricultural food products.” S1208 would eliminate “perishable” and “food,” broadening the scope of industries in which inmate labor could be utilized.

Lodge said she wanted to hurry the legislation along to meet immediate demand for labor.

“The people in the orchards and in the horticulture business need to have workers,” she said. “And that will begin in early February.”

As of December, Idaho unemployment was 2.9 percent, a rate it has been at since October, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. In September, the state had record-low unemployment rates at 2.8 percent. Lodge said such low unemployment rates has made it difficult for employers in all areas to find workers to fill jobs they have available.

“Farmers across the country have suffered crop losses because there were not enough workers to work and harvest crops,” she said. “The same shortage is happening here in Idaho. Even though there are people seeking work, they do not taking field work positions.”

Lodge said the bill would not only benefit the community, but also inmates, who she said would learn marketable skills. Lodge said deductions would be made from the inmates’ wages to pay for the costs of the program, including transportation and security, and for other expenses an inmate would be required to pay, such as fines or child-support.

“The program does not cost the taxpayers,” Lodge said.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, also voiced her support for the bill, saying it would benefit those convicted of crimes.

“Not only are individuals able to make restitution and compensation for their crimes, they’re also able to be productive and regain some of their humanity as they are looking to reenter our community,” she said.

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, was the only one to vote against passage. During discussion on the bill, Keough said she had a conflict of interest, since she works in the logging industry, which would be affected if the bill were to pass. Keough did not participate in the discussion after revealing her conflict of interest.

In an interview following the Senate session, Keough said she voted no on the bill because logging companies would be pressured to hire inmates at lower wages. She said it could also raise insurance rates for the industry if prisoners were to get injured.

“It is one of the most dangerous professions in our country and in Idaho,” she said.

The bill must now pass the House and be signed by the governor before it becomes law.

Nina Rydalch covers the 2018 Idaho Legislature for the University of Idaho McClure Center for Public Policy Research.

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