This morning the House Revenue and Taxation Committee took the cake and put lots of green icing on it for a French manufacture of nuclear reactor fuel. Forget that this deal comes with as yet unspecified quantities of radioactive waste landing in Idaho to be buried as "low level waste" in pits and trenches and yet more to be stored in some sort of container awaiting final disposal with the bi-products of so many other projects which have kept the desert busy for decades north of Pocatello.
The Idaho National Lab is a leading research facility in military nuclear fuel production, disposal and clean up. I say clean up because not only has the production of nuclear fuel for military submarines left volumes of often highly radioactive materials in the desert over the Snake River Plain Aquifer but wastes were brought to Idaho from weapons plants and reactors including the Three Mile Island power plant after its nuclear accident those decades ago.
The DOE’s track record on promising to remove or find disposal or neutralization technology for radioactive wastes it brings to INL is poor to say the least. Some long lived less "hot" TRU wastes have left the state but highly radioactive spent fuels have remained here along with acre after acre of "low level" wastes which keep mounting in the desert with each additional research project which graces our sage brush and cactus deserts.
Some of this we might evaluate as worthwhile. We might say that some of this research has advanced science and produced progress in our ability to deal with the deadly wastes we continue to produce. But at what point do we stop and ask whether continuing to produce more wastes with no final location or process for disposition, at what point do we note that our state might be digging itself into a hole and asking for greater harm than good from these deals? Are we to quietly become the nation’s defacto disposal site?
By locating Ariva here and producing fuel for nuclear power plants on our own soil do we not simply fall back into a trap of paying all the cost and getting so little benefit in this deal. Even worse how do we put a price tag on the risk that these wastes will stay in Idaho forever? And why would we break what is very well understood principles of tax policy to incentivize and attract a company with a questionable track record in other nations?
We have no promise in the text of house bill 562 that we will have any jobs after construction of the plant is complete. We have no guarantee that after the city and county extend services to the facility that it will not close down or leave town because the nuclear industry in the US does not reach a state of revival because communities do not trust that they will not be left to live with radioactive wastes indefinitely. There are no clawbacks, no job or wage or benefit targets in this legislation.
In house bill 561 we extending to one company an exemption which was designed for a production process which produces a taxable product like food, fishing poles or widgets. The production exemption was designed to avoid duplicate taxation but nuclear materials are likely never going to be "sold" to any entity in Idaho. In fact these nuclear materials are technically not owned by Arevia, the manufacturer, but by the Department of Energy, which, by locating the plant here agrees to take the radioactive wastes the plant produces while we, the tax payers, foot the bill through our federal taxes and any impacts to our air water or local health from the toxic gases and byproducts of this production process.
Is this reasonable and consistent tax policy? Is this even an industry or company we want to work to bring into the state?
Why is it that again and again our tax principles fly so quickly out the window when huge dollar amounts are tossed before us?
In the Idaho House of Representatives, 70 of us sit today on the floor of our two story house chambers where we have our lap tops open and screens lit in front of us. You can hear keys tapping and chairs squeaking in the moments between the speaker’s low rote progression through the calendar and procedures of the floor session.
Set in curving rows downstairs and two long, unbroken rows upstairs, we review the legislation we are to vote on by going to the state website where the bills are kept in electronic form. http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/hcal.htm Our voting pad pops up on the desk top when debate is done and it is time to vote. In the old statehouse we had a set of buttons on our desk, a green one for yes and a red one for no. A bell still rings when a vote is called but it is an electronic replication of the old ear splitting metal one in the Capitol building house chambers. At the start of the session this year we had to listen to the many ring tones the staff tested to try to replicate that metal on metal sound.
While we sit on the floor with the bills on the screen before us and access to all of Idaho code, every law, statute and act right there before us as well, http://www3.state.id.us/idstat/TOC/idstTOC.html we might have an instant message window open on our computer and be chatting with someone else on the floor below us or be using our cell phones to text family about our schedule or where we left the truck keys.
In preparation for debate we can visit a web site to help us calculate a lethal dose of arsenic for a bill on water quality standards. When we rise to present a bill, those on the floor below us see us by looking at a TV screen set in the high corners of the room near the ceiling.
It is like we are in many places at once now, like light bends and physical space gets compressed into a black-hole-like space inside this plastic box with plastic buttons which now contains worlds of knowledge and the ability to impact people far, far away in the time light takes to travel. It can be surreal. In a month we will all be home pulling weeds and in many cases standing on ground far from a computer screen. Still, there in our pocket, as the wind blows and the sky turns, a cell phone might ring and in a second we are here again, talking to the Speaker about a bill or agreeing to a schedule for a committee meeting. Lawmaking continues now digitally beyond the reaches of the statehouse. We send digital drafts to agencies, even view revisions on a hand held phone while the dry grass waves and the earth thaws pushing up green into spring.
I was struck today while we debated a bill to stiffen penalties in order to protect domestic violence victims, how very colored our values are by our experience. I see in debate that what we’ve never experienced we really genuinely might not understand.
The committee was hearing two bills from the prosecutor’s association. Both allowed for a felony charge if a person is found guilty of breaking a domestic violence protection order or a no contact protective order for a third time.
In debate, Phil Hart was concerned that his ex wife’s own past behavior and accusations would land him a felony charge even if he did nothing wrong. Raul Labrador thought that it was too easy for people to get a protection order just to try to get custody of the kids in divorce proceedings. Lynn Luker moved to kill both bills because he says that judges can put people in jail enough already under the existing law.
None of these legislators I suspect has ever experienced domestic violence or stalking. None has spent long months with every day feeling like a dreaded test of your will to live. Every day a question of whether you can survive psychologically long enough until you are no longer followed, no longer haunted by phone calls, impersonated, no longer tired of having the police on auto-dial, filing report after report, no longer exhausted waiting for your stalker to maybe snap and kill you with a gun, a car or fist.
How many of my colleagues have lived in fear? Have some of the older ones been to war perhaps? It seems that those who have been in combat might know even better that I do just what living in fear of violence does to a person’s life.
` I look around the room in judiciary and rules and it is like many committees. Three women on a committee of 16. What are the chances that the law will often not reflect our unique needs in areas like domestic violence?
We all seem to value what we know, and fear what we know to fear. Today by the skin of our teeth and with Raul Labrador’s help eight of us passed just one of the two laws to allow women who are victims of systematic harassment or threats to seek some additional help from the court.
Still many women will wait in agony, enduring repeat offenses for a year or more while three charges slowly reach convictions and the felony comes to play. But it will be well worth it I hope for the sake of those few women who now will find safety sooner or get a rest from fear for a year or two while their perpetrators are in prison. I have hopes that prison will work better than jail time because it provides actual treatment for that sort of obsessive control and gives offenders and a better chance that psychological healing (if not the deterrent) will make more Idaho women safe and prevent even a few deaths by violence or the suicide that can follow despair.
In the absence of offices and because even a whisper can be heard from anywhere on the house floor, places to talk strategy or call home are hard to come by. Some spots include: the benches in the stairways. The echo is fantastic but the lobbyists are becoming experts in acoustics. Ah privacy. Note the mural and interpretive sign placed here in cooperation with Idaho’s tribes.
The Supply Closet. Too symbolic. But my favorite.
The Elevator. Drawback is the door which pops open on its own.
One of the many rest rooms which now force the house and senate to mix. Lots of small restrooms mean many places where we meet on close quarters. This one is one of the roomiest. Note the nice stone walls. Some feature hot water in the bowl. There actually is an antique phone booth on the ground level, four stories below my desk on the floor. It has an antique phone in it and one of those beautiful old sliding doors.
Whispers. Lots of them. Who is running for what, challenging whom, giving up the ghost, moving to the Senate, finding family again, sauntering off into the sun set. Sometimes we legislators save these tidbits of information for the last moment, seconds before 5 PM on the day of the filing deadline, the 21st of March.
"What is he going to run for?" "Is she retiring?" "Will someone file against me?"
It is the eve of election season and the hour of speculation.
I know well that there will be some surprises out there and some which are probably no longer surprises. We will lose some good people, a few to higher office, maybe gain some harder working or younger legislators, maybe lose some friends in both parties, maybe see some who have earned a challenge get challenged. While many of the seasoned ranks serve in here quietly and comfortably for years or even decades, there can come a time when even the kindest or hardest working have to look over their shoulders at the secretary of state’s web site come filing time. For those less diligent that day may come sooner. For Republican feather rufflers and outliers sooner yet. There will be primaries we all know. But some of the less than warm and fuzzy of the 105 of us seem to stand the test of elections again and again, often to the dismay of colleagues and the policy we long for.
This year there will be some shifting around within the body, even within Boise districts. The Senate I suspect will gain some Democratic seats. It could be a good year for Democrats there if voters steel themselves and stay engaged through all the swiftboating and low partisan slander that’s sure to come. We have to remember that there are humans behind those faces on the TV screen.
In Idaho, if you are a watcher of politics, March 10th is the day to put the secretary of state’s web site in your browser book marks… and watch races begin to unfold here from the Tetons to the Owyhees and all the way up the rivers to the deep lakes south of Canada.
Thirty five districts each representing almost 37,000 people. Your state legislature taking shape. Think you can do a better job than some of us? Chances are you can. That’s what we wish of democracy. We are a citizen legislature. There is not a lot of glory, but guaranteed a lot of work. Ordinary folks: farmworkers, soccer moms, teachers, small business owners, social workers, artists, farmers, assembly line workers, waitresses and college students. At its best this place should look like Idaho. We can do better at looking like Idaho. I know we can.
Wednesday: I feel like this sinister force is pressing down on this place, like our ugliest, most fearful natures are lurking at the surface, scratching the eyes out of our collective conscience.
The bean counters are stuffing our ears with starch, pulling the alarm on sirens which have deafened our sense to what is possible. It has driven us into isolation, frozen us spineless in our big, black leather chairs.
The Darfur divestment bill is dead. Created with the authorization of congress and the president as part of a coordinated strategy to impact the genocide and violent and systematic extermination of a people in Sudan.
The one chance our nation and state has to make a difference and we fall, believing the whispers that this will be but one of a series of divestment requests — as if national efforts are coordinated through federal legislation every year and as if the genocide of a group of people is acknowledged by world leaders and our own president each year.
PERSI, the Public Employee Retirement System, insists we are powerless and thus we became so.
PERSI insists it has no role in public policy yet invested hundreds of hours in defeating this bill, organizing public employee organizations, the Idaho Education Association and Firefighters to oppose Divestment.
PERSI knows that only one third of one percent of its holdings would be divested and that the list of companies it must avoid is created nationally, yet the managers claim a great burden in having to comply with this divestment legislation. In fact the burden and cost has been their hours spent fighting Divestment itself.
They insist we should have no role in the world, as if our actions are monetarily and materially isolated. This is the ugliest cynicism. I know because I sat in a college amphitheater in 1986 and listened to Reverend Desmond Tutu’s thanks for my work and the work of thousands of students to bring down the Apartheid government in South Africa through Divestment and the public awareness and international pressure which Divestment created.
Tutu was a man who spent his life struggling to end the rule of white government which made him, as a black man, a second class citizen with no right to work or pursue freedom and or participate in his country’s political process as an equal. The Apartheid government was condemned worldwide. This was arguably the only other major Divestment movement in the US in the past three decades. Tutu knew the power of dollars and the power of coordinated international efforts. I know that power and I know that as a state we have that power, and with a small action like adopting this legislation we could have been a part of something larger, part of a strategy carefully targeted to place pressure where it is most needed to end violence and bring down a government which is not just cordoning off an ethnic group within its borders, but killing them, to the best of its ability, trying to kill all of them. And do we really feel we have no choice as a state but to stand by and watch?
I think we know better. I think members of the State Affairs Committee, especially McKenzie, a former co-sponsor, knew better. With this vote, what really have we become?
Last night was Skip Smyser’s Movie night. Smyser is a former legislator and long time lobbyist who holds an annual legislator and legislative staff Movie Night at the Egypitan Theater. People come dressed down. The house and Senate mix, sitting in seats right next to each other (unheard of.) And we sit back, eat popcorn and get transported together somewhere far away and usually long, long ago.
I admire Smyser for his choice of movies. He often has a sort of transcending message he feels we need to hear, about the integrity of the law (A Man for All Seasons), racism (South Pacific), being different (To Kill a Mocking Bird). I look forward to these nights not just because so far they have all been movies I’ve never seen, but also just to look into the eyes of my colleagues afterwards, to ask their thoughts and see what they saw in a film. It gives me hope and re-affirms what we often have in common.
One Hundred and five people from around the state, gathered each year to make law. We are not quite ordinary people. We had the ego to run for office and believe we could win. We had to have the means to give up a job and do so. We had to be elected by a majority and so the majority in the state is better represented than it might be if we just drew lots.
I like nights like last night because we step away from the issues that divide us for a few hours and become ordinary people again. In my heart I hope it helps the process. I also hope the words of the song from South Pacific about being taught prejudice, it not being born in you, ring in 105 ears when we discuss immigration or gay people, when we talk about people who live in poverty and in wealth and about hard work and worthiness. We have a long way to go together. I always hope that nights like last night rub a little armor off of each of us and inch us one step closer.
There are words one might want to avoid when one comes to the legislature to testify in favor of a bill. Of course if you want to kill a bill you might want to use these words liberally, while sounding appropriately conservative.
CASINOS. This morning, presentation of a bill was proceeding nicely until a Senate sponsor mentioned how this particular bill would appeal to Casinos. Let’s just say that a Democrat last year was able to kill an appropriations bill for the Idaho State Lottery Commission because children were pictured on the Lottery annual report materials apparently exploiting children for the sake of gambling. Suffice to say, we are not a pro gambling body.
COMMUNISTS or SOCIALISTS: It is probably not good to mention any avowed socialists who are co-sponsors or to mention Communist countries with programs upon which your bill is modeled.
WOLVES: It would be unwise to say that your bill benefits wolves, even if it remotely might do so.
CAMELS: This just makes people think of the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Slippery slope and, as Lenore Barrett mentioned in response to a claim that a bill took "baby steps" toward a certain goal: "Baby steps? What happens though when this infant really starts to walk?"
ATTORNEYS: While the last election added many attorneys to our ranks, some of them like Ruchti and Luker being most fine upstanding citizens, it is likely unwise to laud how your bill benefits any group of attorneys or any individual attorney (unless it is Perry Mason.)
ENDANGERED SPECIES: I wouldn’t try getting overly scientific mentioning species of any kind, especially not endangered ones, no matter how cute and fluffy (or long pink and slimy) they are. (Well actually the endangered Moscow giant earthworm is white and slimy. Rep. Shirley Ringo says it is quite docile.) But you get the point. We tend to be suspicious of the motivations of scientists. No species.
I have a beef with Newt Gingrich. He’s a very smart guy. I’m not sure exactly what he said to some of my favorite Republican colleagues, but if one more member of leadership smiles at me and says, reassuringly, the words "cheerful persistence" I’m going to have to borrow bigger teeth, grow pig tails or start wearing pink.
How do I convey this? I think Newt can hear the morris code in my heels clicking and the bounce in my step on the stairs of the Statehouse Annex now as I run one more time to the Senate to find that last vote I need for that bill. Cheerful Persistence. I’m pretty sure he feels the Braile in my smile as I look up from my computer getting one more email of frustration or anger from a person far off in some corner of the state to whom government is far away and abstract and for whom the idea of "wait" could mean a meal or even prison vs a warm bed and a space in a detox facility. Cheerful Persistence. I hope Mr. Gingrich hears my keys tapping to the far recesses of our state, sending smiley face thanks and encouragement to friends in Challis, pen pals in Lewiston and fellow non-profit organizers in Idaho Falls. Cheerful Persistence. Perhaps he can turn on his transistor radio and tune in to my thoughts as I run the frozen foothills ridge trails contemplating better debate strategies, rehearsing conversations with committee chairs and planning to set up meetings with cosponsors to keep things moving forward if not legislatively then at least in terms of people’s understanding of the issues for next year. Cheerful Persistence. That’s me. Newt Gingrich’s biggest fan.
My Question is this: if we are the cheerful sort and we do persist, does that mean this all works out in the end?
I’m afraid it was Gingrich who also started this kinder, fuzzier, new conservative "Yes if" thing which is meant to make us feel as if something we want is attainable when in reality our committee chair just sat through this Gingrich pep session and was instructed to use a nicer set of words to say "No."
Don’t tell them "No," tell them "Yes, if…"
Maybe this was the month for unfortunate advice from out of town. The National Federation for Independent Business (well known for their less than upstanding representation of their own survey statistics) had a lunch speaker from somewhere who went on for quite some time about unintended consequences. I missed the end of the talk (they lost me when sprawl turned out to be the fault of well intentioned environmentalists.) And so I’m not quite sure what direction they were going with the consequences but ever since this lunch talk, when Pete Neilsen or Russ Mathews don’t like a bill in committee they use phrases like "I can see this will have unintended consequences." Or "I’m very afraid of the unintended consequences of this bill." It is usually said with some gravity as if we will all know what dreaded outcome will befall the state for this particular bill should pass or even be printed in committee.
So if anyone has the Gingrich speech or the book by this consequences guy, I’d like some help decoding this stuff. And if I’m lucky, other phrases which are haunting my daily life in the statehouse will turn out to also be in code and I’ll be fully enlightened.
It is Friday. Just Democrats left in the upper house. I’ve got my head phones on rocking out to a mix of Stones, Catie Curtis, Traffic, Amee Mann and Warren Zevon. Don’t ask. I’ve discovered this as a good way to transport my self in time and place, get work done and cheer myself up now that bills are falling, stumbling by the side of the marble race track, falling out of windows and finding themselves buried deep in storage closets. The budget is constricting like a corset just as we start setting state employee pay. My desk is struggling to stay orderly under a weight of notes passed in committee, secrets told behind hands and echoes falling through cracks in closed door meetings. Mid wives stop me in the hall. People streaming in this morning to speak so eloquently about our bill on Divestment from the Sudan. The place feels simultaneously like a benevolent father and a ticking bomb.