Republican Caucus

Republican Caucus


Before the door closes it is possible to visit republicans in their caucus. Here Representatives gather for what was announced on the floor as an hour and a half meeting where some have come braced for an arm twisting.  This will be less than fun for moderates or small business oriented legislators who want to "concur" or agree with the Senate amendments to H599.

Friday the Senate turned the big business bill into a more modest $75,000 exemption from personal property tax which will be more focused on small businesses without shifting over $100 million in taxes to families.

We are going back on the floor at threeish and now in our caucus are strategizing about how to concur with the $75,000 exemption. The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry wants to kill the bill now so they can get the whole $120 million tax break next year. They seem to know  that the public will lose  sympathy for their cause once the sponsors can no longer hold up examples of small businesses like the hot dog lady and the burden of her paying her personal property tax (which it turns out was grossly misrepresented in Jim Clark’s stirring floor debate.)

So our caucus is done and the door on the Rev & Tax room where our colleagues meet is still closed. I think that before they went in we probably had the votes to pass the $75,000 exemption. When they come out, who knows.

Healthcare: No Debate

Heart

    There is a fine line as to how many times one person can get up and debate in one day. I was so far over that line on Thursday that I didn’t bother looking back. I’m serving my last days in the Idaho House of Representatives. I have credibility I want to maintain there for next year, voters willing, when I’ll be far across the hall in the Senate. But it didn’t matter on Thursday.
    Some of my Republican cohorts have said they will miss me. Brent Crane has said it kindly more than once. But he has a smile which I suspect means he knows I keep the place lively. Thursday was no exception.
     I went into the floor session knowing that I’d be working along side Mike Moyle on defeating the CID tax. (A scheme under the guise of growth paying for itself where developers have no liability at all to pay for the cost of their development’s impacts on cities and towns, but instead pass the whole liability on to home buyers in a large and easily hidden special CID property tax.) I debated twice and asked pointed questions of the sponsor on that issue. That’s rare. It did little good. The floor fight was spectacular on both sides but the bill sailed to through, and is now headed for the Senate.
    Phil Hart’s horrible memorial to congress on immigration was up after that. I sat up in the balcony waiting there after his long, cruel speech, hearing no one get up to debate against the boilerplate John Birch Society rhetoric. And so I did get up again and when the house made its voice vote we had a fair number of nos. Not enough to make the speaker call for division, but enough that I wish more people across Idaho could have heard the vote itself.
     Later there somewhere in the blur of that day was a little memorial to congress saying Idaho was doing a grand job regulating its insurance companies and that Idaho wants no part of plans to let the federal government create consistent policies to regulate health care. I have yet to determine if the federal law is good or bad. I also realize that memorials have no weight of law and are at best grand statements of legislative sentiment with lots of whereas and therefores. But when they pass they send those sentiments off to Congress, the president or the universe with my name attached to them and the people of Idaho supposedly standing behind them.
     What got to me with this memorial was that this would be as close as we will probably get to having a floor debate on health care for the entire legislative session. People across the state are opening envelopes to paper printed with numbers, dollar figures beyond their comprehension. They are going bankrupt, setting aside plans of retirement, eating the heart out of savings accounts with prescription medication bills, cancer therapies, physical therapy, surgery, and psychiatric care. And very, very few of us, when those white envelopes come, are prepared or often in any way able to pay for what the bills say we must.
    Even with insurance, or especially with it, I think we often are lulled into the false assumption that we will be OK. We have paid, and maybe too our employer has paid thousands of dollars over the course of the year, maybe even thousands more this year then last, just for the privilege of having insurance. But here is no security in it any more.
    What is wrong is that our nation has allowed the insurance industry and our nation’s health care to become so completely devastating to the finances of the vast majority of Americans. Here in Idaho even if you have health insurance, today you can still go bankrupt, end up with your home in hawk and yourself at the mercy of the temporary charity of the county indigent fund, subsidized by property tax dollars and general state tax funds. Small businesses struggling to find something to offer employees, typically can only afford bare bones coverage, a policy so full of lifetime maximums, deductibles and exclusions that the narrow strip of what it covers leaves families vulnerable and employees desperate when they realize what cost they are stuck with.
    And what have we done about it this year? Well, a house committee refused to consider and actually allow us to debate the merits of Margaret Henbest’s proposal to begin universal health coverage by starting with opening up the state’s CHIP program to all low and moderate income uninsured children. They refused to dedicate the tax dollars and consider offering parents an affordable option to ensure all kids have insurance and preventative care to save the state and families millions across Idaho. Margaret has run numbers on expanding state programs like Medicaid to more and more adults as well, especially that band of people who (and the small businesses that employ them) can not at all afford coverage now.
     Ask yourself and ask your neighbors, because I’m curious, would you rather trust a health insurance company, rather pay them premiums and let them decide your rates each year and what they will cover and not cover and how much of each procedure they will pay– or would you rather pay those premiums in taxes and allow the state or federal government to expand their Medicaid or Medicare programs to let every middle class family buy in if they wanted. You might not get cosmetic surgery, but you’d have care  you could predict. You’d have the security of knowing that your premium would not double the next year and that your only cost might be a co-pay for office visits based on your income.
    National research is clear that access to early detection and prevention, eliminating administrative costs (insurance company’s infinite red tape) and things like the need for costly county indigent funds and hospital charity care (which increases the cost of everyone’s care,) would hugely reduce the cost of American health care.
    But why do I bother mentioning these issues? We did not debate them on Thursday. No. I sat in my seat after Mark Snodgrass presented his insurance regulation memorial and no one spoke. Though it was futile, and I was so far over the line in debate for the day, I stood up and pressed the white button on my desk at the base of the microphone on its long, black neck. I leaned in to ask one relatively brief question about whether federal regulation had any chance of ending the random raising of rates and denial of coverage which is common practice under insurance companies in our country and state now. The answer was that the sponsor didn’t think so. He did reiterate that Idaho does just great regulating insurance companies.
    "Compared to what?" I wish I’d asked. "Couldn’t we make them just a little more accountable to someone, especially since we have so few choices here in Idaho and since we don’t really get to take our business somewhere else or just decide to do without if they do something we think is unconscionable, deceptive or dishonest?" But I’d been at that microphone far too many times that day.
    Has anyone asked Idahoans about how pleased they are with what they pay insurance companies so very much for? 
    We sent a memorial to Congress telling our nation that we are regulating insurance companies just fine in Idaho. There was no critique, no room for improvement, even just under the category "Healthcare." Everything is peachy with health insurance here. We "heart" our insurance companies. They, in their gigantic shiny new buildings, with their outstanding board member and CEO salaries and bonuses, are doing just the best work for our families here in the great potato state. Let’s give them a medal for creative problem solving, selflessness and clear dedication to those families they send white envelopes to year after year after year. 

   

How Long

    I’m sure many Idahoans are wondering just how long this session will last. This session which was supposed to be expedited, which began in dark of winter and now has languished into the time that crocus are wilted and tulips are working on flowers inside their tough green skins.
    I can say this. The length of a session is largely about ego. Who will give first? There are definite power dynamics and struggle between conservative House leadership and the moderate Senate. Then there are the dynamics between the governor and the legislature. This is an election year so the fear of raising taxes creates a tension over not fully funding substance abuse programs and failing to address shortfalls in transportation funding. Shifts in funding and taxes seem to be fair game as we have moved items like the state police off transportation budgets on to the general fund (the sales and income tax dollars which fund all our health, safety and social service programs.) But we seem to have moved beyond real debates over how to raise even just the $50 million or so for paying for the debt service on our GARVEE highway project loans. We’ve even abandon talk of raising the beer and wine taxes for the first time in many decades to provide more substance abuse funding to avoid the need for even more costly prison expansion and backlogs in those who need treatment for meth, heroin or alcohol addiction.
    With all legislative elections falling every two years, you seen the willingness to think ahead vanish every two years.
    So here we are diving into April we know we have an even more difficult year ahead for revenue, where tax dollars coming in may, because of the economy, force us to cut essential services. We are with S1447 already on the verge of making this year’s budget balance on the backs of state retirees, cutting their allowance for supplemental health coverage and leaving them at the whims of private insurance companies who can raise retirees rates at will, leaving many services uncovered and prescription drug coverage sliding into the donut hole.
     When will it end? Not necessarily next week, but probably. It all depends on whether House leadership digs in on their big business version of personal property tax breaks. It depends on whether the Governor who came in a day late with with half baked transportation solutions bothers to come up with something sensible and balanced.
    We as democrats have proposed solutions, most of which are no longer on the table, most were never given hearings, because after all this is an election year and who can allow democrats to solve problems. But we know that. We shape the process in other ways, through amendments and through working with the Senate. Someday, maybe not so long from now we will be in the majority. We will gain the 16 seats we need in the House to set the committee agendas and choose to spend wisely and with forethought to save taxpayer dollars by not always waiting until things bleed and fall into expensive crises of meth addiction, over flowing prisons, dirty air and water and limping transit alternatives. Someday. But for this year we push and run back and forth to the Senate whispering mutual plots and plans. I’ve worn a pair of shoes out so the nails have come up through the soles and the rain comes in.
    When will it end? Hopefully after a bill or two is finally changed and another killed. So, soon, while we have half a chance of being sure no more damage to the future is done.
      

Those We Like

It is hard to
debate against those we like. Maybe we see harm in a piece of
legislation that they don’t see. Maybe the harm they see of not passing
it is out-weighed by the harm we see in passing it. But we disagree and
we have to debate, maybe even with some vigor. Maybe we are in our
same party, maybe not. But we are friends. We have shared meals or
conversation, stories of our lives and families. And today we have
different positions and we each have to fight them, advocate for those
we are standing for, who we represent.
    We all try not to take it
personally but the words said in debate are hard to hear sometimes,
especially when you have legislators who lose if a bill passes and
others who gain politically, in terms credibility with constituents or
real policy that is part of their life’s work. Tomorrow we all have to
rearrange ourselves into other alliances and coalitions, so, rather
than taking the fight off the floor, we all as seasoned lawmakers in
the end of our two year terms, we know to leave the heat there in the
big black seats in front of the lap top computer screens, go to lunch,
go home, let it rest until it is less raw.
    There is a line in debate we
have to be careful not to cross, that is in characterizing another’s
intent, or speaking poorly of their efforts or integrity. There are
unspoken rules about this. When a line is crossed, a legislator is seen
to have an edge that I think makes many dread having that person debate
on the floor. It takes a while to learn that, to see how it works. Its
part of fair play that you are careful. At the same time, in an
election year, making partisan contrasts, claiming better moral high
ground for a position on an issue that falls largely on party lines, is
a role many of us are supposed to take. But it is a delicate balance to
do that with in the rules. This time of year you can watch us walk that
line, delicately or not.

Caucus

Caucus

We debate strategy on tough issues including passing local option taxing, public transportation funding and proceeding with a small business focused $75,000 exemption for the business personal property tax.

Caucus

Margaret talks about substance abuse funding as the caucus takes a position against the Governor’s veto.

Caucus

Bill Killen calculates fiscal impacts.

….

House Democrats caucus. Our door is open and so you could walk in to the legislature and come in and join us. The Republican majority party does not hold open caucuses so I can’t post a photo of their caucuses. But maybe one of my good Republican balcony colleagues will get me one next week.

Survival

Photos

Put the head phones on and wow. Here I am. The message-focused, issue-automaton that I become falls away and its just me here at the computer on the floor listening to Taj Mahal, Tracy Chapman and Concrete Blonde. I’ve literally been too busy spinning here between committee and balcony, key board and sleep to dig out the ear phones and listen to music here since weeks back in February.

    We are far from there now. Today I went to the press conference which some of Boise’s stalwart Human Rights organizations had pulled together, there out on the lawn as the rain turned to white snow. We discussed Senate Bill 1323… a bill saying I, as a gay person, am human. I matter. Saying that this state agrees that harm against me is not OK. Saying that firing me or throwing me out of my apartment for no other reason than that I’m gay is not O.K. What state or nation would not up hold that value?

    Odd day today. Full of odd moments. I’ve written so much e-mail that my brain now naturally streams bill phrases, numbers, consequences, debate. The music here in the head phones reminds me that I can survive anything, even as good bills go down and bad ones creep ever forward. If it all gets to me for a day or two each session, I’m doing pretty well. I have a well of strength from many places. Carol’s brilliant humor, my years in the wilds, having seen a world where I know never to pity myself too much. I’ve seen lives people live elsewhere in the world. I can survive anything here.

Here’s one I will share……. Having walked alone for hours following foot prints, through deep snow at first, and then downhill for miles along the winding dirt road out of a Tibetan mountain town through forest, toward the boarder with Nepal. An army jeep stopped and I took a ride with a group of Chinese military men in uniform. It was a ride that I know from the faces and voices there in the cramped seats very nearly went wrong. I speak no Chinese only some Nepali and when I insisted on getting out, I was on a huge hill side above the boarder gate. Rocks fell constantly across the road from high up in the rain and I threaded my way down huge switchbacks until a voice below the road called out. An old man sat there under a low piece of corrugated metal. He invited me in with hand gestures. Leaning over a little fire, he made Tibetan tea for me, a kind of salty yellow soup made with yack butter. He showed me how to dip little dough balls made from tsampa flour into the warm broth and I sat with him, communicating with gestures and smiles there in his shelter of tin by the road side where he had pulled me out of the rain to share with me what food he had.

Shenanigans

Lake

Quite a moment in Committee this morning. Chairman Lake banged the gavel and the 18 of us committee members were starting a to hear testimony from the public on a bill which had been granted a hearing with a majority vote the day before. Suddenly the chairman addressed the committee in his formal, friendly way and announced that we would have our hearing on a different draft of the bill instead, a substantially changed version which the committee did not pass and did not approve at any time, and in fact had not yet seen.

As Democrats, we sit together in a row at a leg of the table on one side of the room. We looked at each other and I raised my hand. I objected, pointing out that it was improper to substitute one bill with another bill, when the committee approved only the one of them. I also pointed out that it was particularly a problem that the changed bill would affect people in North Idaho who clearly were not at today’s hearing and would have not chance to comment on how the bill would affect them and the local option sales tax which they use for property tax relief.

The Chair shrugged off the discussion saying we’d take testimony. As the few speakers wrapped up, the chair announced that we would not vote today but would have a hearing instead tomorrow on the new bill. The chair mentioned that since we had "an agreement" in the last committee meeting to hear this other draft, we would do that instead of voting on the broad local option sales tax authority we had just heard testimony on.

You know sometimes it takes a second for an incongruity to register. When you hear it, there is that moment of delay while your memory registers that no such thing took place. Rep. Jaquet pointed out that we were part of no agreement at any time on this bill and that the agreement clearly took place within republican leadership. (There is no such agreement in the committee minutes.) Chairman Lake smiled and looked down ready to adjourn the meeting without a vote on the bill people had just come to testify on.

Rep. Jaquet raised her hand and made a motion to approve the existing bill anyway. She moved to send HB 688, the broad local option tax authority bill, to the floor with a due pass recommendation. Rep. Lake squirmed and smiled and said that it would be his call. Even with a motion on the table, he adjourned the committee, no vote, no other motion, just the gavel.

So you might wonder what would matter so much that the chairman would bend rules to change this bill and eliminate the ability for local communities to use a local option sales tax for property tax relief. If you think about all the ways that certain members of House Republican leadership have tried to stand in the way of local people’s ability to fund urgent local needs like public transportation, you realize it is likely that they recognize that property tax relief might be pretty popular use for a local sales tax, especially since communities in North Idaho already use local option for this purpose. It might even be popular enough that, when combined with a proposal to fund public transportation, it would easily pass by 2/3 majority, even in places like Star, Eagle and Canyon County. And well, even if it means eliminating a potential method of lowering property taxes, they seem to stop at nothing to stand in the way of this kind of progress. Light rail, street cars, a real bus system. Apparently, the last thing Rep. Moyle wants is having the local option legislation include anything that improves the chances that the Treasure Valley will ever use a 1/2 penny local sales tax to fund public transportation.

Coercive Rhetoric

Interesting our debate now on Rep. Bob Nonini’s HB 654A making it unlawful to coerce a woman to have an abortion but leaving it lawful to coerce and threaten a woman with violence to force her not to have an abortion. Do the sponsors think it is OK to threaten a woman to force her to have a baby she feels unable to bear? Do the sponsors want to protect their right to coerce women for this purpose? Nonini said this was about protecting women, about our safety and our rights. I would have to say I doubt that. This bill is about politics and religion, not about women.

Only two men voted with the 9 women who voted no.

Blues

    People ask me if it ever gets to me, bashing my well gelled skull against the polished granite of this place. I don’t give up easily but at the end of the session it is over, there is no hope but next year, the will of frustrated voters, a gift from the courts, acts of congress or something as yet beyond me. I know how to recover in the interim, how to take this feeling and turn it into determination, bring it to the voters and help them to take it to the ballot box to create change in this place. But for now we are stuck here with little but sinister excuses for policy before us.
    Yesterday I left the building on the verge of tears and walked in this morning trying to swallow the lump in my throat. We could go home now, bang the gavel now. Call it damage control. We would forgo hurting state retirees, encumbering the constitution, shifting burdens, letting developers charge hidden taxes and yes admitting that the majority are again this year leaving many still in harms way. That the Governor and Republican leaders have waited this long to address transportation funding of all kinds means we will likely do this badly, in some sort of forced or leveraged way.
    Here on the floor with a list of bills in front of us, I whisper to the white ceiling that we could go home now, before we vote. Make the clerk stop reading. Turn off the computers, empty our desks, hug, shake hands and be gone. The state would likely be better for it.

Waiting for the Train

If you look at legislative agendas (see link at right) you’ll see a lot of notes that the committee will meet at the call of the chair. That is to say the committee room sits empty and the secretary may be wrapping up  committee minutes or doing other tasks (and, on a side note, yes, as far as I know all the committee secretaries are female. Four of our committee Chairs in the House are also female: Jo An Wood in Transportation, Lenore Barrett for Local Government, Sharon Block in Health & Welfare, and Maxine Bell as chair of the House’s most powerful committee, Appropriations. In the Senate only Patti-Anne Lodge is a committee chair and in all, only six of the Senate’s 35 members are women.)
    So, call of the chair is a suspended state of non-animation. There may be back room meetings, like that this morning to discuss transportation. Or there may be a bill coming from the Senate or a bill that the Senate wants which won’t get a hearing until the Senate passes something else. That would be the case with Public Transportation Funding right now. Tomorrow morning we finally will see a hearing on a bill AUTHORIZING (not just limiting as the constitutional amendment does) the use of voter approved local option taxes perhaps for pubic transportation and roads. I’m not sure what exactly we’ll let local people vote to raise their own sales tax for. I’ve not seen the bill since several have been proposed and counter proposed, trying to please Republican leadership in the house. I’m fascinated to learn if the crafters of the constitutional amendment will allow the Treasure Valley or others to begin work on funding public transit systems this year or if everyone must now wait a whole year more until November 2009 after this constitutional amendment passes statewide this election year.

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