Disgusted

Some days I walk myself to the statehouse in the dark, sit attentive
through long committees, ask unwelcome questions, end up the sole no or
yes vote on a bill, look at the long list of evening events we are
supposed to attend and wonder what I am doing.

I forget how many
kind people have written to tell me how much better it makes them feel
that I am here. I forget that on occasion I do make a change that
affects lives, I give voice to what isn't heard or those who will be
harmed. And that is something.

It is hard though.

Today
when we heard a simple bill to mandate that insurance companies cover
"elemental formula" as if it were medicine so that kids (whose lives
depend on eating this formula instead of food) can afford it and can
stay alive.

So that you know, some kids can't eat regular food.
At about two months their bodies reject their mother's milk and if they
are lucky their doctor figures it out and puts them on special formula
and then about 1/3 of them get better quickly, another bunch get better
in a year or two and a very few need the formula for life.

But
Idaho insurance companies don't cover this stuff. And after today's
vote they still won't. The companies promise though to try harder and
we believed them. We don't like mandates I guess. This is something new
for me to know about the Commerce Committee. It governs health
insurance. Or, I know now, doesn't govern health insurance. All the
things we COULD do to make health insurance companies do a better job,
stop denying claims, be more accountable for making people wade through
so much red tape to get something covered they know should be
covered… we don't do that. We trust insurance companies instead.

I
sat there today and listened to those parents' stories. I can only ask
what kind of nation makes people lose everything because someone in
their family is sick? What kind of government tells them to get a
divorce so they can maybe qualify for Medicaid so their child does not
die? What kind of state makes people go through this? Run up tens of
thousands on their credit cards, sell everything? What kind of people
refuse to do anything because the insurance company lobbyists are
really nice people and they promise us things if we will only agree not
to make them do what they don't want to.

I'm disgusted because we
have no backbone, because I work in one of the few places where we
COULD fix some of what is wrong with healthcare and we won't. I'm
disgusted because I work in one of the few places in the state where
the people I work with mostly don't seem to think there is anything
wrong with insurance companies or the way health care works. Or worse,
they use how broken the system is to agree to do nothing at all.

LORI-watts-insurance09

On a similar insurance coverage issue, Lot Watts, social worker from St. Als Hospital testifies as to how some cancer patients are unable to pay for a chemotherapy drug because insurers classify it as a pharmaceutical rather than a cancer therapy. Watts and the chemotherapy bill's sponsor Senator Joyce Broadsword are opposed by not fewer than seven seated insurance industry lobbyists.

Ayes and Nays

When the Senate secretary reads the roll for a vote, typically if you are listening in on line or through the television, you will hear a long stream of Ayes. The controversial stuff is killed in committee, never introduced or stuck in a drawer. What gets to the floor, has jumped through a lot of hoops, made it by many gate keepers and has enough of a force behind it to be considered by the whole body.

When a Democrat brings a bill to committee, there is a bit of a disadvantage. We have possibly not had much of a chance to chat with the committee chair about the bill at functions over the summer. We may have co-sponsors but this year we can not longer list them prominently so that anyone would know anyone but one of us is supportive. We may be asked to get an attorney general's opinion or feedback from Governor appointed department heads.

We rely on the kindness and respect of our colleagues to be allowed to have a bill printed, to get a hearing on the bill or to have it sent once printed to the committee where it is supposed to go. Lots of things can happen to a bill. It can indeed be sent to hostile committee, on purpose or inadvertently.

I had a bill that simply makes it an employer's, not an insurer's decision to allow a business' employees to buy health insurance for their unmarried partners, boy friends of girlfriends and other family members if they are not married. The bill is a benefit to the state because it increases the number of people and their children with access to insurance. This improves preventative care, reduces emergency costs, catastrophic fund costs and other taxpayer funded health care costs.

The bill went to State Affairs Committee, not Commerce where insurance related legislation usually goes.

Beer and Wine

When we get a phone call from a constituent to the Legislative information desk, someone sends us a little yellow piece of paper with the brief massage typed out and a return address where we can call or write back. Last week the yellow phone call slips started flowing, a constant stream of "Don't tax my beer and wine" messages rippling out from the alcohol distributors, to the bars and restaurants to the patrons, riled like colonists at a tea party.

I understand. No one likes to pay more for anything, especially in hard economic times. But I ask, would we rather pay more through some other part of state government to build more prisons, pay for more emergency care from car accidents, more child protection and domestic violence shelters — all because we do not offer nearly the treatment we should to prevent or end alcoholism and substance abuse in the state of Idaho?

I promise we will all just pay more if we don't someday create a dedicated funding source for treatment. And I'm talking about treatment, not about advertising or bill boards here. We will all watch people in our communities suffer year after year because we didn't help this year, because we didn't see the larger issue here.

I don't like the temperance argument. Moderation is what most people use in their approach to beer and wine. But if those of us who do drink beer and wine are not asked to pay for treatment, then who should pay? If we could tax Meth, believe me, we as a legislature would. We can't. Not Meth or Heroin or Cocaine or any of it. But when someone's family member is addicted and they can not afford an expensive treatment center, where will they go? Who will pay?

Let me say this, I don't know about you, but I would have paid. I would have stepped up and shelled out the seven cents a glass of wine or bottle of beer, and I would have paid so that finally the state of Idaho has a chance to fund real drug treatment as we never have before.

But here on the afternoon of this cloudy spring day, when the Senate floor is subdued and people file in and out on their way to and from committees, it is too late. The beer and wine tax went down, five to thirteen in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee this morning.

Top Ten About the Stimulus

I know the stimulus plan puns are getting old. Stimulating conversation. Less than stimulating conversation. In any case, our Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee today spent the first of three days discussing Idaho's share of / potential for/ obstacles to / failures related to / and deadlines for…. the federal stimulus. Hoping eagerly for something that will help the 50,000 Idahoans looking for work.

Top ten things I learned:

10. This money is from Idahoans, past and future, to be sent via Washington DC via federal agencies, grants, direct appropriations and requests which many pray are going to be made by the Governor…

9. Goals include avoiding job losses and lay offs in state government, avoiding state tax increases, creating new jobs, making the nation more energy independent and preventing the immediate implosion of a hand full of Governments in states from one coast to the other.

8. It is true the governor can reject this money. But we as a legislature can override his objections, as long as he doesn't veto them. (Of course 2/3 of us could always vote in favor of a veto override and that would be that.)

7. If you have an idea, you need to apply to a state agency and the Governor's Department of Fiscal Management (DFM). These budget analysts have some flexible money to use for creative economic development, energy and job creating ideas. Can we put the money in to fill all the holes in our state budget? No. Might it free up money we now spend on Medicaid to prevent the deepest of state employee pay cuts? Possibly yes, for now.

6. People can have ideas. Non governmental entities can come up with shovel-ready (can be permitted and ready to grind into motion in 120 days) job producing ideas as long as they do not involve: casino gambling, aquariums, zoos, golf courses or swimming pools.

5. The governor is asking other governors, including Democrats for help. This is good.

4. If you have ideas that use American made products or resources (steel, iron, some manufactured goods), that is encouraged.

3. Everyone's ideas have to be turned in by noon on March 4.

2. Not until March 19 will the Governor's advisory committees have their reports done.

1. The legislature will sort of be sitting around until then. Sitting around for this body, and especially the body across the hall there, is not a good idea. Legislators can hatch crazy ideas when we are bored. Bad ideas generally. With the exception of the Napoleon Dynamite Resolution which was one of the best bored things anyone ever passed through the legislature.

Read it if you need some cheering up. 
http://www3.state.id.us/oasis/2005/HCR029.html

Running Low

Letters-senate09

Senate Floor. Eight A.M. Senators scattered at desks. Rain falling lightly outside. The place echoes in ways the House chambers did not. There it all feels close and muffled.

It is a session of stops and starts. The little white numbers that outline the Senate and House calendars, sit mostly in their boxes. The boards are mostly blank as our beloved, red vested Senate pages leave and a new crop begins work today.

The House Chair of the Joint Finance Committee, Maxine Bell, shared her shopping habits with us last week at a dead moment, while the committee waited for JoAn Wood to come  make a presentation on transportation issues. Maxine explained that she buys everything at home in her own local grocery store and hauls it here to Boise to the place she stays. It is her own local contribution to her local economy and a way she visits with constituents. Most important, she shared that she knows when the session should be done by the amount of toilet paper she has left. She says that we all had better get to work or she knows she is going to run out.

Losing Ground in Silence

Sitting at my desk on the floor of the Senate. Outside it is growing warm and across Boise people are planting spinach.

Only one bill to go before we break for the weekend and all fly off home. I will fly the ten or so blocks home to dig my hands in the dirt and try to forget this day for just a few hours at least, just until it is time to start planning for how to change this downward slide in the advancement of our rights here in this tiny isolated red red state. Just a few hours until we can figure out how to end the silence and make this issue clear and unavoidable in every corner in every little town of this thawing state.

On a simple print hearing vote this morning where seven committee members heard from Senator Coiner first and then from me on why more than 42,000 people deserve to be able to work at their jobs, go to school and live in a house or apartment without fear, the senate state affairs committee voted five to two not to introduce the proposal as a bill.

Not to even give it the courtesy of print. Not to acknowledge that discrimination against gay people might be a problem worth discussing inside the state's law making body.

Clearly we have far far to go and need many more voices in there with ours because people all over this state live quietly in fear every day. In school rooms, in board rooms, at desks, in processing plants and apartment complexes. What are the values of a state which, by omission, condones discrimination year after year, whose law makers know better, but refuse to stand up and act.

The committee members asked not a single question. Senator Stegner, always valiant, made the motion to approve the introduction of the bill. Senator Kelly seconded. The committee was silent but for their brief voice vote. Five to two. No.

Wtf-human-rights
 

Risch and Crapo and Debt

Senator Jim Risch is speaking to us now about his experience in Washington DC. He is spending a very long time talking about his seniority. I suspect after so long in the executive branch here in Idaho, he is less accustomed to being somewhere near the bottom of a pecking order. His words suggest some tension with his more senior Senator Mike Crapo with whom he says votes on every bill and amendment.

Risch and Crapo both in speaking to this body, sternly remind us that the current borrowing is mortgaging our childrens' future and sending American dollars to China. Senator Crapo certainly has done a bit of that borrowing in his ten years in the Senate… let's say ten trillion in borrowing? But according to Senator Risch, this borrowing is different because a Democratic President is borrowing to help people afford health care, to make us less reliant on high cost oil and to keep states from raising taxes and or going bankrupt.

The real irony is in Risch's statement about how freeing up credit will fix our economic crisis.

Is not our problem in part that families and small businesses are too deep in debt already? Wages are so low and the cost of fuel, housing, daycare and insurance so high that people can not meet basic needs with out borrowing to fix the broken refrigerator, the car or to buy groceries or pay a doctor bill.

More lending good Senators? To really fix our economy, I think we have more fundamental issues to address.

Food on a Table

Sometimes a day unravels. Sometimes it just starts with a conversation you can not believe your committee is having. Fifty thousand Idahoans unemployed. A nation trying to keep states from going bankrupt. Laying off state employees. Hundreds of businesses folding up and blowing away.

I remember how former legislator and Joint Finance Committee member, Margaret Henbest looked in here in the statehouse hallways sometimes. It was a warning to anyone asking anything of her. I used to think she was just a bit high strung and should chill out a bit. I feel that look in myself somewhere now on days like this.

People's lives are affected by our actions so clearly in years like this. What we fund and what we cut. Who loses a job. What business closes because no one can afford to buy what they sell. There is weight to this year that is unusual. More gravity and uncertainty. What we thought could be a short session, may lengthen as forces between the Governor's office and Republican leadership debate whether and what of the stimulus to take. Their delay helps no one.

These dollars are dollars paid to and to be owed by Idahoans to the Federal Government, regardless whether we send the whole check back to Washington. Some of the money headed our way may not rescue us from ressession but will keep states like ours from raising taxes for roads or to keep schools open next year. Some will help insulate us from further crisis. It is not the recovery package I would have crafted but it is the one we have in front of us. The indecision and posturing does not help one single business stay open or one single family put food on the table.

Being Brave for Gay People

Today listening to Senator Tom Gannon's memorial on the Senate floor, I
remember how full of hope and optimism I was four years ago. My
colleagues in the Senate collectively fended of an anti-gay
constitutional amendment, standing up for us as gay people against
intense political pressure.  Fourteen Senators stood, brave and
eloquent. Tom Gannon was one of them.

It felt then like things could only get better, for our families and
for safety and equality. But marriage became a tool of political power
like the atomic bomb. It struck fear into the heart of every
progressive law maker from here to Alaska and back. Those who once knew
a line of discrimination they would not cross, lost that line in blind
fear.

And our community here in Idaho grew understandably angry and bitter,
even if briefly. And for those legislators who stood up for us once,
the anger may be all they remember.

I hope not. I hope they remember the tears of relief after the vote in
2005. The flowers we sent. The cards and packages of candies. It was
not that we gained any new rights in that vote. It was that we could
remain in legal limbo for awhile more. And we did for another year until
Idaho passed arguably one of the most restrictive Constitutional
Amendments in the country.

I see the looks on other Senator's faces when I mention gays and
lesbians. Do they think I love reminding them that I belong to a sub
class of Idahoans that does not have the right to work at a job, attend
a school in peace, hold a family gym membership or health insurance
policy as they do? Do I love reminding them I belong to the group of
people that can be forced to die alone in a hospital room; whose
possessions at death can be distributed to estranged family members
over the wishes of the immediate family because that family is not of
the right gender.

Please tell me this all makes sense to someone…. outside religion,
beyond what one person believes verses what another believes through
their religious faith. Please tell me we have a legal and
constitutional reason why I deserve less than those men and women I
serve with every day. I am, in the words of others, a good person, a
good Senator, a good hard working American, someone who has given of
myself to my country and community. But I'm not good enough for
equality for one small reason. A reason that affects no one in the
whole world in a way that is not positive. My partner who served her
country in the Air Force, is she less worthy of love or happiness? Of
equality? Fairness? Respect? Humanity?

So yes to my colleagues, I am coming back this year to bother you,
because you have not yet stood up again. So many of you are willing if
only others will just be brave. This is the time to be brave. There is
harm being done to good people every day we delay, every single day
that we remain one of the few states that does not allow gay people the
simple right to be employed, to go to school, to live somewhere
regardless of who we love, who we have spent our lives with.

All of us can hide in that comfortable place where we don't have to
educate our constituents or colleagues, where we don't have to be brave
or take a stand on something hard. We can hide there forever and
pretend that is OK. But I know so well how many of you have gay family
members, sons , daughters, brothers, sisters. Each of you will think
I'm talking about you, but I'm not. I'm talking about LOTS of you and
you never talk to each other about it. And if you think your sons and
daughters, nieces and nephews want to bring it up any more than I do…
just imagine.

Where is the time for bravery? For justice? For eloquence? I can't do
this alone. Believe me. Can we not be brave enough to make some step
forward this year?

…………..

Friday we have a hearing to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to add
sexual orientation and gender identity and to include protections for
gay people in employment, housing and education. 8 AM Senate State
Affairs Committee, Second Floor, Old Ada County Court House at 6th
& State St.

If you care, please do not stand by this year. We need supporters,
parents, employers, friends, students, landlords, farmers. This will
not be a hearing for testimony, just for witness and to steel those we
are asking to vote yes. There are nine members on the committee. Please
bring cards, flowers, something to thank those who vote yes.

If you can not come but want to write a letter to the editor of your
local paper big or small PLEASE do… especially those of you out there
who have never written a letter to support us before.

Nicole-CarolCivil UnionBW

Who is the Governor?

Some days, Butch Otter is the governor of Idaho. The guy in the tight jeans with the big hair and million dollar grin. The guy who recently has become virtually bionic with hip and other joint replacements. The guy who shuns his city roots and clings to a young cowboy image like a life raft.

But on state employee policy and who knows what else, Mike Gwarney runs the state of Idaho. The well groomed, sweet faced man, with perfectly manicured white hair. He calls the shots. He has spearheaded this "run government like a business" (some might say "like a sweatshop") mentality that has cut benefits for employees and retirees, increased workloads, cut health care, cut jobs, cut leave, cut protections, all without bringing state employee pay up to the level of the private sector which the Governor says he emulates.

This morning the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee gave-in to the Governor's office and passed language that gave him the sole power to decide how to cut 5% out of Idaho's budget for state employees and personnel. We let him decide whether State Agency Directors will use layoffs, pay cuts or furloughs (mandatory days off) to cut $32 million from what Idaho pays to and for agency employees and another $47 million from what we spend on teachers and school personnel.

"Any across the board pay reduction shall be determined by the Governor and shall affect all classified, permanent, temporary and seasonal employees." Our language went on later to say, "Any remaining reduction in funding shall be managed by the respective agency directors, with approval by the Governor…by keeping funded positions vacant, by the use of furloughs, and if necessary by a reduction in force." Layoffs.

I asked questions before and during our committee meeting. My sense was that we as the budget writing committee wanted to protect the economy and state employees by using means other than lay offs. Foolishly I let that give me comfort.

I know furloughs are by far the preferred method of cutting costs, especially from state employees' perspectives. To some extent then employees get to determine which paycheck will be short.

It has taken a long, long time for the legislature to give state employees any reasonable cost of living pay increases. It is very rational for employees to fear that it will take a long, long time before the legislature would give back any 5% base reduction in pay. The trust is not there so I'm sure that furloughs sound far better than pay cuts.

Near the end of the committee meeting, Mike Gwartney came to us to talk about the state insurance fund. Out of nowhere he said that Idaho could expect an increase in insurance spending because, he said, 'When there are layoffs people get their teeth fixed.'

Layoffs? Who had said anything about layoffs? Especially layoffs massive enough to affect the state insurance fund's tooth fixing budget? Hadn't we just spelled out in committee that layoffs were the last resort?

In many cases, especially on the front lines, people are already doing several other people's jobs. 

I looked at the man with the perfectly groomed white hair. We had just given him the power to execute 5% reductions in personnel spending. He had cover finally to help Otter "Find efficiencies." "Reduce the size of government." "Starve the beast."

Does he not realize that, to some people, he and the governor are synonymous? What a cavalier way to wear that power, not know what a warning he would send by tucking the word "layoffs" into what he came to say.

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