Levity

Levity

Crystal White, Stacy Falkner my Interns with Democratic Staff Member, Cathy Downs in the Snow

Levity

Les Bock Watches as Our Chairman Gets Gaveled by His Co-Chair

Levity

Lenore Watches the Mayors Sing

Levity

Kassie, Carol and Barack Obama Speechless

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When it is tense, how do we survive?

  •     Carol makes me laugh when things are the most difficult. She knows how to make me stop banging my head against the wall and how to help me see the humor in really anything, including having a bill die.
  •     I have two hard working college interns who are researching fiscal impacts, making phone calls, keeping the e-mail from over taking my computer and reminding me to stay focused so I don’t unravel in
    an unsightly way when I have way too many balls of legislative yarn in the air.
  •      My upper house colleagues sense of humor keeps it all from
    spiraling down with the paper and binder clips and anything which might
    fall off the balcony. Someone in the back row passed around a 1955
    pamphlet on keeping women in their place and called it the report from
    Steve Thayne’s Family Task Force.
  •    It is nice to be just a fan for awhile. Barack Obama coming to Boise Saturday morning fuels me to remember how big things are out there and how hopeful this state looks for Democrats this year. Maybe there will be more balance and more than 19 of us in the House in 2009. If we work hard enough, at this time next year we could have a Democrat as president, real health care reform in the making, smarter energy policy, strong, intelligent, articulate leadership to make us respected again as a nation.
  •     Even Lt. Governor Risch whispered a joke about how, before Governor Otter’s hip surgery, he had offered to administer Butch’s anesthesia. He said was told that wouldn’t really fly.
  •     Chairman Clark has a wicked sense of humor but had two bills up today. He treats even defeat like a game and laughed when his Vice Chair Leon Smith gaveled him during the presentation of his highly technical supreme court retirement fund stabilization bill.
  •     At one of the million receptions, lunches and functions today, two Mayors sang and even I found myself singing the star spangled banner, probably the most risky thing I could do to my re-election since I absolutely can not carry a tune.

Messages Sent

Tense days. Finalizing legislation, seeing the deadlines looming. The friction is palpable among factions of our Republican colleagues over brewing debates about the grocery tax, open or closed primaries and more. Everyone seems yet more on edge as we close the week. Some of us stay late calculating fiscal impacts, writing statements of purpose (SPOs) which you find at the bottom of the bills on the legislative web site. In committee they appear as a sort of green cover sheet on a House bill (yellow on Senate bills.) They say what legislation does and why we feel it is necessary.
    This afternoon in the Senate, a long list of us as Senators and representatives, expect to introduce the bill to get PERSI, our public employee retirement system, to divest from Darfur. If we pass it, we sell .03% or less than one third of a percent of the stocks PERSI holds. Those oil, weapons and other companies sit on a list of businesses flagged nationally as contributing significantly to genocide in Sudan. If we pass this bill we join congress and the even the president and send a message that we won’t participate in the deaths and torture of thousands in Africa, where, far off there today, it is nighttime in the heat of summer.

Taxing Mabel

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Let’s say there is a woman named Mabel and she lives in Star. She is 80 years old, lives in a tiny house which she has paid off. She survives on social security. She has asthma, drives very little and buys her groceries once a week at a local store.    
    As a member of the House Revenue and Taxation committee I sit with a group of 18 people every day to decide how we should tax Mabel. Yesterday we debated when to let her choose to tax herself. This is a debate which has burned for a decade in the Idaho legislature.
    To understand the debate better, let’s say Mabel doesn’t like kids (in fact on Halloween she pus cans of green beans in a bowl on her front porch for trick or treaters.) When asked to vote for a plan that would put $20 more on her annual property tax to pay for vocational and technical programs for teens in four neighboring school districts, she votes no.
    Prevailing tax policy in Idaho says that, because a minority of tax payers in any taxing district may own a house or property, there should be a 2/3 super-majority vote to approve any property tax increase. This gives as few 1/3 of the voters in the district the option of rejecting the tax, denying the funds for a project and imposing their will on the district if they choose. To me that’s not generally unreasonable since those voting for the tax sometimes may not pay it themselves.
    However, yesterday the Rev & Tax committee went a bit deeper in. What if several school districts get together to do a cooperative project. They create a new taxing district which encompasses several school districts. Now lets say one of the school districts within this new bigger district does not get the required 66.6% while the other school districts get more than enough votes to pass the tax? Should the vote fail? Is there a fair floor we might want for the vote across all the distircts? Or shall we call a district a district if all those like Mabel living inside it have access to benefits from the services this district provides.
    The same issue is being raised almost daily here in the legislature in reference to the Community College election held here in the Treasure Valley this past May. Ada County voted over 70% in favor of the tax and the college while Canyon County voted only 61% in favor. Many law makers have characterized Canyon County’s vote as a rejection of the community college and the small property tax it imposed.   
    Is it accurate to say then that they (Canyon county as a whole) rejected the tax and the services the College will provide to the community? Actually a very healthy majority of the voters voted yes.
    In contrast we might note that every day Legislators (all of whom were elected by a simple majority) are empowered to raise or shift property taxes and change policy all across the state, again by a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate.   
    If we have given a taxing district very limited taxing authority (preferably to raise only very small amounts of tax which they must get voter approval for) should we arbitrarily be looking at how sub sections of the district vote, even though all the lines we draw in creating a taxing district follow random features of the land, latitude or longitudinal boarders or roads or fences built by local residents to navigate the land or pen animals in? Just because a school district line falls in one place does that mean that those people on opposite sides of the boarder have different interests or are not dependent on each other economically? Mabel may vote no but actually may benefit by having lower cost plumbing services because of the number of plumbers being turned out by the technical college. She may get her car fixed more quickly or inexpensively. She may have fewer kids wandering the streets board, unemployed, and causing trouble in her neighborhood. She may have to spend less to white-wash graffiti off her garage.
    Let’s say today that the tax we want to ask Mabel to approve is a sales tax to fund a new bus and rapid transportation system for the entire two county area. Mabel will pay this tax on her food, her annual trip to buy blue jeans and white cotton shirts and will pay it on the washing machine she has to buy this year when her old one breaks down. Mabel, because she doesn’t drive much and has never sat in a traffic jam in her life, votes no on the half penny sales tax. She is, at the time of the vote, unaware that the new frequent buses and trains will reduce traffic and improve the air quality which is aggravating her asthma. She is also is not able to predict that her failing eyesight will cost her her drivers license and that she will need a bus soon just to reach the grocery store. She doesn’t consider that she will soon be able to visit her grown nephew in Nampa without ever having to navigate another freeway interchange.
    Mabel’s nephew, looking forward to the day a few years off when he can walk the 1/2 mile to the train, get ten minutes exercise and avoid a 45 minute commute morning and evening, votes yes. He will pay this tax on his new car, his TV, his new fishing rod and hunting riffle.
    Because this is a sales tax the transit district is asking voters to approve, all the voters in the two county
area will pay the tax. Should we still then require a 66.6% vote at the time of the election?  Those voting yes will be the same ones paying the sales tax, unlike with the property tax where those who benefit most may at times be different from those who actually pay it.
    If Mabel and her neighbors in their local county, school district or mosquito abatement district should vote to approve the tax at only 60% should the entire two county area be denied the ability to address pollution, traffic jams, and access to local services for the disabled? Should the majority be allowed to solve their urgent local problems or should they not? 
    Maybe Mabel will vote yes on a half penny tax. Maybe she will vote no. But someday, depending on what we do in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, all the way out in Star an older woman will ride a bus to the grocery store and breathe easier when the inversion sets in, or she won’t. 

Greener Pockets

Today the House Energy, Environment and Technology Committee, which I serve on, approved a bill to require 30% more energy efficiency in the construction of state buildings in coming years. The bill, swallowed by the committee last year on largely partisan lines, passed today with only Rep. Steven Kren and Rep. Curtis Bowers voting no. I am sure Steve and Curtis have reasons for voting against saving state dollars by building structures which use less energy. I might not know what they are exactly but I know they have them. I might hazard a guess. It may be that deluge of fun publications which offer article after article about the evils of government regulation of everything from day care centers and water quality to building construction, carbon emission and fuel efficiency. I’m pretty sure that the Heritage Foundation, which publishes these newspapers, is largely an organization by and for businesses which are making strong profits for their shareholders doing things exactly as they do now. Not surprisingly they work hard to try and persuade legislators that there is no sense to arguments that human health or taxpayer dollars may be at stake if things (designs, materials, emissions, effluents, or the ingredients of their products) stay as they are right now. But that’s just a guess. We all have our own legislative priorities and values systems within which we operate. We each have to weigh out how we prioritize human health, our feelings about government regulation, short term vs long term costs and what ever else enters our reasoning from the recesses of our minds.

Against Us

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For two years, we, the members of the House of Representatives have given the morning invocation ourselves. We have had an occasional guest chaplain, but on most mornings we could look forward to seeing the world through the eyes of a different legislative colleague. We have Buddhists, members of the LDS Church, Christians of all kinds and some whose invocations reflected a mix of respect for different faiths, including respect for the right for members to live without religion.
    This year Speaker Denny chose to return to the practice of having the same House Chaplain give our invocation in the form of a Christian prayer each morning. Our house chaplain began prayer today with this quote from Romans: "If God is for us who can be against us?"

Because sadly there are days that that quote sums us up all too well, I would ask: Since we have at least some Legislators who are not Christian, will we misjudge which God is with us? What about the definition of "us," who do we include? Who do we exclude? And which god or gods would take sides where all mean well and have good moral intent? And what if gods differ in their assessment? What if we have asked the wrong question and believe in our hearts we are righteous when we are not? What if we are divided, who is God with then? Who is God against? Is it not possible that both sides believe God is with them? If so, does this lead to greater understanding or to greater conflict?

Energetic Disagreement

The Idaho Legislature’s efforts at energy planning in recent years leave much to be desired. As legislators, we ranchers, teachers, small business owners, insurance salesmen and retired farmers gather in committee and try to learn some of the basics. What are the limits to how much electricity we can carry on our existing power lines? What new energy producing technology is being developed? What are the true comparative impacts to our health and our environment of coal, nuclear, wind, hydro, solar and geothermal power generation?
    Sadly we rely heavily on presentations from industry to answer our questions and school us in the basics. Ultimately it is Idaho Power, Idaho National Lab, coal producers and the very corporations who stand to gain from energy projects who take committee chairs to lunch, feed us information and set policy for us behind closed doors so that we end up with plans which are designed more to improve companies viability than they are to create energy independence and security for uncertain times.
    For example, our interim committee on energy did not set firm targets for renewable energy in Idaho’s portfolio of energy sources, instead our state energy office has been set free to focus on nuclear power whose lobby has been relentless in trying to convince the state that, though practically no other state wants to build new nuclear power plants, that Idaho should embrace the idea in spite of the fact that it ensures the storage of new nuclear wastes within our boarders.
    I’m quite certain that our new energy czar does not have a set of proposals or options from every possible type of energy producer on his desk. Solar turbines, tidal and micro hydro never seem to enter into the conversation. And what if we really thought outside the box and decentralized energy production somewhat, especially for residential usage? What if we heavily incentivized solar water heaters, passive solar heat and small energy projects on ditches, ranches and roofs across the state?
    Diverse and decentralized production makes more sense for creating energy independence and energy security for our state than giant nuclear project or new coal plants. Both coal and nuclear rely on limited resources and even with recycling of nuclear fuel, very dangerous wastes remain as by-products which will continue to accumulate and will have to be put somewhere for hundreds and even potentially thousands of years.
    In committee I ask questions and watch some of my colleagues roll their eyes at strategies to address the impacts of climate change, air pollution, and water contamination. We can keep feeding the folly that says we will be fine when gas reaches $5 a gallon. We can pretend we don’t really need public transportation and that the public will accept radioactive waste being stock piled next to the Snake River. We can pretend we can keep building subdivisions out to the horizon and never run out of water, never find a time when the freeways can not be widened any further.
    Without question energy and environmental issues are the toughest ones I deal with. They have become sadly the most partisan — I think in part because, as legislators we don’t know enough about science to ask the right questions. We don’t demand to know the other side of the story or demand to know who paid for the glossy publications or the monthly "climate" and "environmental" newspapers which appear everywhere we go. If we are to guard the interests, the energy security and health of our state and our population we have to be more critical and creative. Too much is at stake for us not to.

Pages and Hair

Unless you’ve been to the statehouse or our temporary quarters while we are in session, you might not know about Pages. I admit I don’t know that much about pages, except that there are quite a lot of them, that they seem to have a sense of humor and that they keep the legislature from existing as this insulated club of 105 mostly older men, and some women, with little or no connection to the generation now contemplating first dates, acne, college applications and a world attached to little or no experiential limitations.
    Sure some legislators are grandparents, a few are parents with kids this age or younger, a few of us are teachers, but it’s a very few. Yet we spend all day, five days a week with the equivalent of a high school graduating class, from an average sized rural high school in our midst, studying us, learning  the rules, the procedures and personal politics from very, very close quarters. I confess at first, it is a bit easier not to notice them, particularly in the balcony where we are somewhat out of the way on our two dead end rows perched above the main floor. Eventually they make their impression, they say hi, they ask questions, make a joke or hang there just outside the debate.
    Practically speaking, day to day, pages staff our committees, retrieve code books, pass notes for us, they run errands, make copies, fold letters, and congregate in a little room off the House Lounge near the snack area. Of course these are not just any high school seniors or juniors. They hale from particular towns around Idaho and tend to have last names like Lake, Andrus or Moyle, names that reveal their lineage and ties to the committee chairs and sheep-rancher-legislators they are the children and grand children of.
    Dan Popkey noted two years ago how the pages, if they had been the ones to determine the fate of the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (and civil unions and anything remotely similar), that this younger generation would have rejected the amendment quite soundly. Listening to their conversations this year you see them thoughtful and playful, exploring what party affiliation they feel fits, what hair styles they might enjoy and what law makers they might emulate or avoid.
    If you watch the floor session from public television or the internet, something I find hard to recommend until the session gets into full swing and we are actually beginning to debate legislation (as we likely will next week,) you might have noted on Friday that one of the pages on stage during the prayer had her hair in a pretty vigorously teased "do." The speaker called it a beaufont. Given that I am actually one of the now growing handful of gen xers in the legislature, I was not alive in the era of the beaufont, so probably can’t well judge how beaufont the hair was. What I do know is that chairman Dennis Lake’s grand daughter and page for the House Revenue and Taxation Committee has one fabulous, wild, gutsy hair-do. We’ll call it a horizontal beaufont. Kind of a giant, blond, back of the head, eye lash. All the female pages I understand on Friday were trying to apply enough hair product and combing techniques to achieve this level of hair. The Speaker took it well. It was much needed levity in a long somber week.
    As for the pages, they are here until half way through the session when they return to high school and a new batch arrives on the House floor. I suspect they see a lot more than we think. If past groups of pages are any indication, there are thinkers, scientists, writers, activists and governors among them. It will be a surreal transition for them I’m sure, from immersion in politics and issues in a stuffy, adult-centered environment, to home and school again. All the secrets of the House will spin off to far parts of the state with them. For now they are here, perfectly capable of judging us, our integrity and actions, hovering, hair flying, just behind us here, but ever so slightly invisible in the legislative process. 

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Night Time

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The Doors to the Floor of the House

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Entry to the Balcony or "Upper House" as we call it

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Inside The Forbidden House Lounge. Once the only place off limits to all but legislators.
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Night time. Four hard working Democratic women left on the empty House floor as the clock ticks toward 8:30 PM. Snow is falling heavy outside and I wander down to graze at the snack table. Pretzels. Two white shirted security guards smile and say hi. I say good night to them almost every night when the windows are dark and the halls are quiet.
    The stairs are good exercise. In the day I run up and down trying to find Senator McKenzie (who is busy with his law practice right now) or my cosponsors for other bills, going to committee, collecting my mail (which appears in growing stacks all day every day.) I open letters from prisoners, answer e-mail notes on everything from dog fighting and the grocery tax to the human rights act and a bill that’s trying to make it even harder for recent immigrants to hold a drivers license and car insurance.
    Each night my calendar in my auxiliary brain (pda) shows a mass of overlapping events. Receptions with the Hispanic Affairs Commission (which I serve on), dinner with water users,  disability community advocates, stem cell researchers and more. I’m back here on the floor though after just one event most nights, because I still have so much work to do finalizing drafts of legislation and getting really ready for that time soon when I will be juggling several bills at once.
    Off into the night now. Snow inches thick since I returned from enchiladas and dancers in colored dresses, statistics on Hispanics still uninsured, and warm hugs from old friends from years back or hundreds of miles away.

Words and Power

Serving in a legislative body, one might have reason to contemplate power. There’s the kind of power where one has a title and fills the role of figurative and proceedural leader.  Usually there is a power structure associated with this authority and it can be, if it chooses, relatively absolute. There is in here the power to coerce from a titled role. By that person or group’s power, committee chairships are given or taken, bills are routed or held, authority to levy campaign dollars or sway donors and endorsers is coveted and rationed. There is the power of the majority. There is the power of authority and experience which, with simple consent or agreement, with a yes vote on an issue, brings others to follow. There is the power of persuasion, a gift for knowing colleagues, knowing the body as a whole, knowing when to speak and when not to, what to point out, what to leave out and what to simply imply. This power is delicate and can be over used or over ruled. There is hopefully too the power of organizing others to a common goal, working constantly to arrange, inform, bolster and hold others in place, together. Always, with a single word, some in a body such as this, have far, far more power, coercive and perhaps, by virtue of political party or membership in the majority, they have more persuasive power than others. Even if the electorate of the state or a district rallies later against an action, the action can still be taken. There can be consequences, but those come later. This is a heirarchical structure, bound in formality. At a word, all the organizing and persuasion in the world can come crashing down and democratic — one person, one vote — processes evoporate into whirring fans and shuffling papers. I remember this as I work. I have to. Yes, I walk delicately, gently at times, trying to help move a universe with the fickle power of words.

Finding Home

Sitting in Rev & Tax Committee. Our Minority Leader, Rep. Wendy Jaquet has waited three years to get permission to arrange today’s speakers on workforce housing. Workforce Housing. That’s the term resort communities use for affordable housing even though in many places its not just people in the service industry who need a place to live, it’s seniors, young families, people who face a health crisis and can not work. I know we face a tough audience in here on this issue, especially if its not clear that people struggle with rents and mortgages far beyond Boise and Ketchum They struggle in Teton County, McCall, Coeur d’Alene, Bear Lake and Stanley.
    The questions from the committee are telling. Our Chair, Rep Lake, asked it it were not more wise to raise wages rather than buying land and building housing so as to create a class system where some people live in special houses or buildings set aside while others live in homes. He makes a great point. I passed him a note to ask if he would support a locally adjusted minimum wage up to say $21.50 an hour so that even those laboring for years in resort communities could have a chance at affording their own home.
    However, if saying we need to raise wages to address the problem is going to be an excuse to kill any efforts as helping set aside land and funding for affordable housing efforts, then we should all come clean.
    In the past two legislative sessions bills to raise Idaho’s minimum wage a dollar or two above the present $5.15 an hour and then to index it so it keeps pace with inflation have been killed pretty much on party line votes. I’m just hazarding a guess that there will be no real legislative effort to bring wages anywhere near the level where someone trying to work in a restaurant in McCall can own a home in town or anywhere near by.
     And Rep. Wood’s point about loss of land for trailer homes and later about how farms and ranches build on-site housing for workers is interesting as well. If only a school or gas station or cafe had an abundance of land, affordable, extra land, they could build a house or two on in downtown Victor, Stanley or McCall. But I think that is the point. Lots of businesses rent and don’t have land to build homes on for their workers. And as Rep. Ruchti from Pocatello pointed out, the whole town benefits from having people live where they work and having people housed rather then homeless or driving fifty miles to work each day. So a whole town or city should help ensure housing is available for those who work there.
    One can’t help but think of the city of McCall which recently mandated that a portion of all new developments include affordable housing. This policy keeps neighborhoods mixed, protects areas from air pollution, commuter traffic and sprawl and protects communities from potential economic instability that comes from having all members of a neighborhood or community belong to one single economic strata or class.
    Real estate developers were none too pleased with McCall’s policy. The Idaho Association of Realtors in fact sued the City Council to stop implementation of this particular ordinance. I suspect that if developers, builders, real estate companies, ski areas and down town merchants do not step up to create proactive plans soon, we will need more mandates. Either that or we can live with homelessness, live with dishwashers driving hours in the early morning dark through a storm, live with streams of traffic as people commute from distant parts of the county to work, live with more people turning down Idaho jobs because they can not find a place to live near by on the wages we offer.
    There are consequences to prosperity that benefits only some but does not pay adequate wages or at least offer adequate help with the necessities to benefit all. Idaho’s growth bumps us up against that problem, finding homes for those who need them most. Like homelessness, it doesn’t seem to go away just because we build one small shelter, make a few arrests or buy a ream of bus passes. There are root causes and eventually we will have to tackle them.

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