Seventh grader introduces amphibian bill

An Idaho seventh grader went toe-to-toe with the Senate’s majority leader on Friday – and won.

Ilah Hickman
Seventh-grader Ilah Hickman, right, and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, pose for a photo at the Statehouse on Friday.

Les Bois Junior High student Ilah Hickman went to the Senate State Affairs Committee to present her bill to make the Idaho Giant Salamander the state’s official amphibian.

For Ilah, this quest began in fourth grade when she learned about Idaho history and symbols such as the peregrine falcon (the state raptor) and the monarch butterfly (the state insect).

Ilah’s teacher assigned her to write a mock letter to legislators proposing a new state symbol.

Ilah didn’t stop there. She wrote an actual letter to lawmakers and, in 2012, worked with then-Sen. Mitch Toryanski to draft a bill.

She didn’t get a hearing. She came back in 2013; her bill was printed but didn’t receive a hearing.

Again, Ilah wasn’t deterred.

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“Even though they voted to give the bill a full hearing (in 2013) it didn’t happen,” Ilah said. “So here I am for a third time asking you to support the bill.”

In preparation for Friday’s introductory hearing, Ilah ramped up her game.

She placed a ballot box in her school’s library and asked classmates to vote on whether to introduce the new symbol.

She started a Facebook page to bring attention to her cause and spread news throughout the state.

And she spoke eloquently about the legislative process, directing her testimony through Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa – a respectful procedural element of decorum that many adults still haven’t mastered.

She even quoted Winston Churchill.

“Winston Churchill once said, ‘Never, never, never give up,’ and that’s pretty much what I was going to do when it comes to anything that’s a challenge for me — school, sports or getting this bill passed,” she testified.

A White Pine Elementary School teacher is even developing a Common Core-aligned lesson based on her efforts to write a bill and get it through the Legislature.

Even so, lawmakers didn’t make it easy on her.

One of the Senate’s most gifted orators, Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, quizzed Ilah on whether other amphibians were indigenous to Idaho.

Once she replied yes, Davis asked her to name them.

Ilah conceded there were others, such as the spadefoot toad.

But Ilah suggested that the Idaho giant salamander, because of its name and that fact it is almost uniquely native to Idaho, is the way to go.

“I think the Idaho giant salamander would be a bit more unique,” Ilah said.

That appeared to clinch it.

“I am not going to win,” Davis conceded, before moving to introduce the bill.

The committee voted to introduce the bill with only Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, voting against it.

After the hearing, Ilah said she wanted to follow the example of other young adults who have pushed for change. She specifically mentioned  Malala Yousufzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who stood up to – and was shot by – the Taliban. Ilah also drew inspiration from Barbara Johns, the civil rights hero who, at 16, led a strike for education equality in Virginia.

“I hope it encourages kids that they can produce bills and can protest to get what they think is right,” Ilah said.

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