BOISE, Idaho — A camping ban at state-managed properties cleared a House committee on Tuesday, beginning the countdown to the day when Occupy Boise protesters will likely be forced from their tent village across the street from the Idaho Capitol.
The House State Affairs Committee voted 13-5 for the measure, after the Idaho attorney general concluded evicting the group from the old Ada County Courthouse grounds wasn't an unconstitutional infringement on free-speech rights.
Four Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Janice McGeachin of Idaho Falls, voted against the bill.
The vote capped three days of testimony, as the protest group's diverse interests came into focus: Some want laws against businesses that offer high-interest loans and others sought to underscore frustrations with Wall Street bankers' role in the housing bubble and ensuing recession. Still others were convicted sex offenders who fear eviction will leave them without shelter.
The bill's sponsor, House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, said he appreciated protesters' passion but insisted it was reasonable to have limits on where people can erect their tents.
"Who'd have thought, we'd need to regulate camping on the Capitol Mall?" said Bedke, R-Oakley. "I don't think it was the intention of the citizens of the state of Idaho to have their lawns on the Capitol Mall camped on."
Bedke cited a legal opinion from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office as support for the legislation.
"It is content-neutral. It is narrowly tailored to the purpose of keeping public property open for all and free of obstructions," wrote chief deputy attorney general Brian Kane.
Occupy supporters said even if Bedke's bill becomes law, as seems almost inevitable, they won't go without making some kind of statement.
At a meeting on Monday evening in one of their large tents, they discussed what to do once state eviction notices go up.
"The group is pretty creative — there's a lot of crowd sourcing, a lot of ideas, so I wouldn't be surprised to see another civilly disobedient response that would continue the message," said Alex Neiwirth, a union lobbyist and Occupy Boise supporter who attended Monday's meeting.
The Idaho Department of Administration manages the courthouse property, and Tuesday's hearing gave its director, Teresa Luna, a chance to outline her agency's response to protesters' arrival in November.
She described a futile search for a law forbidding such long-term encampments, like the city of Boise has on its books. While she finally concluded that Idaho had nothing similar, Luna insists her agency has never struck a deal with the occupiers, as some in the group had suggested.
"We did meet with them, but we did not give them permission," she said, adding her agency has incurred about $9,000 in additional costs since the protest began in early November, including hiring an extra security guard to monitor campers and to remove graffiti.
Luna pledged to give the group notice — likely to start once the bill clears the full Senate and heads to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter for his signature — before state officials actually began formal eviction proceedings.
"At some point after that, we would begin looking at an eviction," she said. "At the very least, these folks would have three days' notice that a law was going to be signed."
Some occupy protesters said afterward they'd accomplished part of their goal: To underscore to lawmakers their concerns that government has lost its connection to average Americans and now listens only to corporations.
Katie Fite, an environmental activist and supporter of the Occupy Boise movement, said she was especially heartened by Rep. McGeachin's support.
McGeachin, the lone Republican to oppose the bill, talked about how she was intrigued by the motives of protesters and highlighted her own concerns about the cozy ties between Wall Street banks and presidential administrations from both major parties.
"It's not a Democratic issue, it's not a Republican issue," McGeachin said. "It's an American issue. Crony capitalism is a big problem in our country."