Bad Mussels & Betsy’s Ugly Tie

Today on our first bill we had a long delay on the pea and lentil
commission while several members of Republican leadership slowed things
down so Senator Cameron could get back to the floor to vote. Senator Davis described how much Senator Cameron appreciated peas and lentils and the lentil commission. Senator
Stegner extolled the virtues of lentils, their fiber and flavor and
protein. The delay was effective enough to get Senator Cameron on
record as voting Aye with the rest of us.

We met early today at 9:30 and so blazed through many bills. Two I was
the floor sponsor for, meaning I was assigned or offered to take the
bill in committee and to present and argue for it to the full Senate. I also asked questions about the $5 Kayak/Rubber Raft Mussel Tax bill
as well. I wish I had voted no. Someone voted no. I don't know who. I
know that the mussels are a threat and that rubber rafts COULD
conceivably carry the young mussels, but it is hugely unlikely,
especially as I remembered how few boats ever leave the state to be
infested where the dangerous invasive mussels actually live. I voted
yes, tugged along in the long roll of yes votes.

The bill was not an ideal solution for raising money to pay for
education, enforcement and inspections of the motorized boats that
are most likely to carry mussels. However Betsy Russell has donned an ugly tie, so the end is near and I suspect we are
getting to the point where more and more imperfect legislation will be
set before us, rushed with the force of time and the daily cost of our
staying here in this building. What $30,000 a day did I recall?

Hate, Spit & the Word Gay

A few weeks back I asked people to post signs on their cars, homes and places of work that said in big letters, "Protect Our Gay Friends, Amend Idaho's Human Rights Act." The word gay was particularly big, maybe 7.5 inches wide by 4 inches tall. You couldn't miss it.

My partner Carol and I put one of these paper signs in the back side window of our car. We are gay people and it would be surprising if anyone living around us had not noticed by now that we are gay. Yet still I guess I was taken aback when one morning after we posted the little paper sign, that someone clearly spit on that window of our car. And if a day or two of the spitting was not enough, I drove to a meeting one night and someone put an obscene little flier on my windshield. I admit some places I started parking lately, I wondered if the car would be safe. I knew we would have to take the sign down to go to my mom's place near Challis.

This is all to say that I do recognize that perhaps I was asking too much. That even I might forget how much anger or hate or cruelty there is in the world, that I would ask people to open themselves up to hate, especially straight allies or gay people in rural areas where there is so little safety, that I would put anyone at risk bothers me.

I figure I have grown isolated living in the north end. But if I am isolated to what happens, my legislative colleagues are far more so. They might not see the gleeful cruelty or seething in Bryan Fischers web posts and missives. They might not have visited the web sites where people talk about me as a gay person and about guns in threatening ways. They might not have read the recent email to me saying I should leave Boise because there are people who moved here from places like California to get away from gay people like me. The email was a bit more harsh in its language. I won't quote it.

In essence I reel with trying to comprehend how many of my colleagues do not believe discrimination happens while all around them it does and I only wish they would put one of those big gay signs on their cars and see what happens.

But I don't want to ask that. I don't want to ask that of anyone. So I found better signs. They say "Human Rights for ALL: Amend Idaho's Human RIghts Act." I don't think they will put anyone at risk. As a nation we do believe in Human Rights. As a state the vast majority know people need them. I feel better asking people to post these signs. I think more people will. I know I was asking too much with the other ones.

It was like with talking to one of my colleagues about how best to go about passing the changes to the Human Rights Act we need in order to protect gay people. He said we needed to find a way to do it so that we don't have to say gay, or sexual orientation or gender identity. I'm thinking it is a bit hard to write a law that won't mention the people it is supposed to protect. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation there. If anyone has ideas I'll take them.

Short of that, it is just going to have to become a bit more safe to say the word gay. A lot more people are going to have to say the word (kindly) or wear those signs that say gay someday. Straight people too, until it gets more safe and normal for all of us to see people be OK with the word gay. For the word gay to be boring would be ideal. For now I have the signs that say "Human Rights for ALL" and don't say gay in big letters. Because we are not there yet.

You can get a sign to print for your car or house. While the words don't have the force of law, with time they can show more people care, ordinary people everywhere around Idaho. That's what matters. And I feel pretty sure that, even without the word gay, people will know what we mean.

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Breaking Our Schools

I'm trying to understand the ideal school in the mind of Tom Luna, Butch Otter, John Goedde or Bob Nonini. These men are the four most powerful education policy makers in the state of Idaho, none have ever been public school teachers and I'm pretty sure that at least four of them don't even believe in traditional public schools. But what they believe we should have instead of our current system of free public education mystifies me.

Tom Luna has advocated for vouchers so that more kids can attend private schools. He must feel private schools do a good job. I've taught in private schools and public schools. I can tell you a key difference. Some of the best private schools in the state tend to have far smaller class sizes and more money for field trips and travel to ensure kids get hands-on experience so that they can finally figure out how all those words in their text books apply to the real world. Yet here we are this year with proposals that specifically cut field trips out of public school budgets and slash funding so far that many districts, already struggling, will have no choice but to lay teachers off and increase class sizes just to keep the lights on and the buses running.

This morning we met in the attic again before JFAC. The staff passed around color coded packets of paper representing three different proposals for funding public schools. There was the depressing-enough pink proposal from Democrats Wendy Jaquet and Shirley Ringo, who tried to do as little damage as possible given the budget situation. Then there was the "wisteria" purple proposal which tried to make a 5% personnel cost reduction for schools on top of stealing an extra $20 million in state dollars to use for other projects besides education. A yellow (code name "daisy") packet was supposed to represent the compromise which in itself was a grim mimic of Tom Luna's budget proposals including a two year phase out of early retirement and a massive cut in transportation for Boise schools.

There was no winning with this budget and this set of motions. But the votes fell entirely on party lines. Republicans had made a back room deal to actually put forward only one set of motions, including stealing the extra $20 million from schools to use on other projects, and failing to challenge Governor Otter on the $44 million in discretionary stimulus funds he wants to spend on roads and sewers. When the 4 to 16 votes were all called, it was clear that our current education leaders have a very sinister plan for our schools.

John Goedde has been recorded as saying, in essence, that public schools have failed. Bob Nonini has put forward some of the most anti-teacher, anti-public school legislation our state has seen. Butch Otter is sitting on $44 million in stimulus he could use to keep schools from laying off teachers and dooming kids to classrooms stuffed to the gills, frustrated and clamoring for help from single exhausted teacher. But he won't.

If there were ever an argument for saying that Republicans are not fit to lead our state on education, this year is it. After a decade of living so close to the bone that there is nothing left to cut, these cuts we are making this year could really leave a generation forever set back in its progress toward learning, its skills and enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge, its access to teachers who value what they do for work and, for decades, have given everything they've got to make sure kids learn in spite of the condition of our schools. This year, with the incredibly ugly set of priorities our four Republican education leaders have displayed, I can only believe they hope to finally once and for all break our public schools.

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An Un-Do

Yesterday morning Senator Keough, a soft spoken, well respected long
time JFAC member and co-chair, made a motion that we re-open the budget
for the Office of Species Conservation. She explained that she rarely
supports doing this. She doesn't support "Un-Dos."

Last week
I'd joined Rep. Ringo and 8 Republicans in voting for a substitute
motion to cut two staff from the Office of Species Conservation. The
move was wildly unpopular in my district since the office mostly
administers grants to private land owners to help them comply with the
federal Endangered Species Act. My childhood home of Custer County is
one of the largest beneficiaries of these grants. There in the
mountains, ranchers and farmers along the many forks of the Salmon
River get funds to hire local contractors to install fish screens and
other contraptions on irrigation ditches along the river banks and
tributaries where endangered salmon spawn and smolt often swim and face
sudden death in pastures and alfalfa fields.

So, yesterday,
Senator Bert Brackett made a motion to restore staff to the Office of
Species Conservation and as I did last week, I seconded his original
budget motion for the office. Bert looked sad and apologized to the
committee for not explaining adequately how important the office is so
that the committee might have supported his earlier motion. He owed no
apology.I told him so and apologized to him and the committee for
abandoning him to vote for Senator Siddoway's motion to cut the budget.
There is a respect we owe each other to let our colleagues know when we
change our minds having said at first we will support them. It is about
your word. I take it seriously. Not all do.

Ironically the
Director of the Office of Species Conservation got up after the motion
and before we voted nearly unanimously to add two new staff back into
his budget. I think he hoped to persuade the committee that he is a
good guy and that his office deserves the existing attorney and 7 other
staff. In any case, he, the director of the Office of Species Conservation, whose work it is to help protect endangered species, smiled at the committee in anticipation of our
vote, proclaiming the Endangered Species Act the most draconian law in
the nation.

Boxes & Neck Ties

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I think it is time to put on big ugly neck ties and get this legislative show on out of town. Downstairs the brown packing boxes have been delivered. Still flat, they occupy a part of the hallway on the first floor.

Crocuses have faded and my spinach is a green fuzz across the garden, having miraculously survived the freezes and frosts.

One of my afternoon committees has gone "call of the chair" or adjourned until further notice. The bills yet to come are ones I dread. So I think it is really time for the neck ties. We have less than a week more of budget setting. 7 am meetings, lunch meetings, 4 pm meetings for just a little longer. In total we may be two, three or some say four weeks from finished depending on how serious the governor is about vetoing bills to get his tax and fee increases on top of his nifty new compromise of $82 million in GARVEE borrowing and tens of millions in federal stimulus. The governor is amassing one heck of an empire of roads.

And we are cutting education……….

We'll be paying for the GARVEE debt for a long long time, even when we can least afford it … mostly to widen a stretch of Nampa-Boise freeway that could never be wide enough. I voted no this morning with a hand full of conservative Republicans. But it passed anyway. I'm not much of a borrower. Especially with the economy so volatile. This is a good time to pay things off and get back closer to the black.

I need to track down that tie. Time get us all headed in the direction of home.

Horrible Power

No where in the legislature is our power as legislators more evident than on the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. There more than anywhere we are like godzilla-sided toddlers roaming across the landscape of government, too tall to see the detail of what's below, too big to look in the windows and figure out through the course of a year what's really going on. We rely on staff and I picture them some days like all too generous parents, gently trying to keep us from doing damage while providing us with everything we need in order to do what we will do each day.

With a single motion we can unexpectedly lay people off as we did with the office of species conservation last week. In my pink onesies I burped out the final deciding yes vote and they were gone.

With a single motion we can build a bit of a fervor around something and kill a whole agency as we did with the women's commission this morning. The $23,000 agency is gone. I was the only Democrat to vote yes for getting rid of it. My reasons were very different from my colleagues who claimed budget constraints and duplication. I voted to eliminate the Women's Commission because it is an absurd joke to expect a $23,000 agency with one part-time staff person to achieve pay equity and end disparities in the status of women in Idaho. Ending inequalities is not supposed to be like playing house. I don't think we as a legislature should get to put forward this agency to help us pretend this state government really cares.

Bad Motions

I got in trouble for wearing a band aid on my forehead
yesterday during floor debate. Perhaps it was recognized as political statement
on behalf of fellow teachers rather than as a real sterile dressing designed to
protect a wound.

Today we came to the attic of the old courthouse where the
Joint Finance Committee meets at 7 am on budget setting mornings. We gather with
coffee or orange juice around several big folding tables where the heat rises. Typically
we share our “motions” or give each other a bit of fair warning as to where
each of us proposes that a budget should be set. How many employees will we
give an agency? How much for rent and utilities? Any replacement items, new computers,
cars, servers? And what money are we cutting? Where will funds they do get come
from? From the federal government, a dedicated fee, a grant or from the big $2.4
billion state tax bucket called the general fund?

This morning we had to make a decision we have been putting
off while the world adjusted to what the more than one billion in stimulus
funding will mean. We had to decide how much to cut state employee pay. There
were seven motions or proposals. In the heat of the attic in this big old
cement and stone building anything seemed possible. As we passed out the motion
sheets in that room that used to be part of the county jail, the options seemed
to contract.

By the time we got to our committee room in front of the
cameras our choices were down to three. Three bad motions made on the table in that
comparatively cold and empty room. All three motions proposed to cut state
employee costs by 5%. The worst one of these passed. It cut every state employee’s
pay by 3% and then mandated 2% more in employee cost be cut through furloughs,
keeping positions vacant and if necessary through layoffs.

The House members were lock step for this motion and its 3%
salary reduction and 5% net cut in personnel funding. Why in any rational way they
would want that, I do not know. We could have given more room for agencies to
use furloughs more or vacant positions. We could have used dedicated funds or stimulus
funds to keep it at 4% or even 3% total personnel cuts. But leadership in the
House has been twisting arms for weeks. I’m not sure what any state employee
ever did to them or if it is just that those particular Republican leaders need
to keep hating government, even when government is our tax dollars, people’s
jobs, people’s lives.

So I feel awful. I tried to make a motion that was only so
slightly better than the motion that we did pass. It was a band-aid for a
gaping wound.  Our Democratic votes are
band-aids on gaping wounds in a state government run by people too often angry
at living in a nation increasingly blue and progressive. We serve here at the mercy
of a political party increasingly hateful toward cities, astoundingly favorable
to big industry tax breaks and deregulation at the expense of the families,
farms and small businesses upon which our economy and unique existence as a
state depends.

Some days, while I love my colleagues as individuals, the
politics get so sad and ugly that I feel like a twig in a big red river flowing
ever more quickly toward the edge of the earth.

Role of Government

One of the pages is playing the bag pipes. Legislators are clapping and foot tapping outside the Senate chambers. Many JFAC Senate members have been up with budget staff trying to understand how we ended up with a 5% state employee reduction after all the work we have done to blend stimulus dollars into the budget and keep us from laying off people state wide. But the governor seems to be saying that since so many state workers are in Boise, he'd rather spend the money on highways. The House leadership has buckled down on their members to try to cut deeper into all parts of what the state does. The old starve the beast mentality, as if childhood health care, teachers in class rooms and people making sure that our drinking water does not get contaminated are some evil entity because they are paid for with tax dollars. This is the work of the state which we as tax payers pay our taxes for. We expect this of state government because we don't want a country in which the very wealthy get the kobe beef education, water and health care and the rest of us get the grizzled, greasy, big mac patty version. We know our state and nation are stronger if our people are well educated and have the skills they need to use their ingenuity to advance our economy and care for their families. We know crisis is expensive, that letting something simple go untreated because you can't afford care, means more cost for government and taxpayers down the line.

So we clap and the bag pipes play while the battles go on behind the scenes.

What is the role of government? How much can we cut before efficiency becomes inadequacy? How much costly crisis do we create when we underfund basic essentials and when let class sizes grow?

Bicycles on Highways

Pleeeeez Mr. Hammond and Mr. Governor, do you really think that all the people forced to ride bicycles because they can't afford or can't drive a car live in the North End? What do you think people in Middleton or Shoshone or Post Falls do when they don't have the money for gas or car repairs? Does it really help these people that you still propose to raise registration fees to as much as $120 after spending every penny of the stimulus you can, borrowing hundreds of millions through GARVEE and raising gas taxes to build more roads.

Mr. Governor your people talk about bike lanes like they are a luxury item. Have you ever tried to ride to work on a rural highway, especially one where the transportation department has eliminated bike lanes and further narrowed shoulders at your request. I grew up in Custer County and I am not talking about he North End of Boise, I am talking about trying to figure out how Idahoans get to work when they don't have a working car.

It might be OK if you'd dedicated some funding to making sure there was some bus or van or some public transit in every community, but you and people like Mike Moyle say public transit doesn't work. What do you mean? Doesn't work for you because you can't imagine leaving the comfort of your giant new pick up truck to ride a bus? What if you had no choice?

What choices to Idahoans have left? Walk, bike, hitch hike? What about kids in rural communities? They walk and bike along state highways everyday. Are bike paths a luxury for them? How many kids and adults in Idaho die on highways every year because they have no safe place to walk or ride? I  bet someone knows.

All for Roads and Roads for All

Headed into the Joint Finance Committee where arms have been twisted so the Governor can cut State Employee funding by 5%. Every dollar he can funnel into the world of concrete and asphalt is going there. As if the road construction industry's boom alone will revive the economy while we lay off state workers, make them take deep furloughs, cut teachers and teacher's aids, grow class sizes and weaken our ability as a state to serve people when they need it most. An economy needs small businesses and I'm wondering where we are working to help them. Little home energy efficiency companies, tech companies who scan documents and do data entry will boom, but not because Governor Otter wanted them to. The strings in the stimulus are accountability measures. Congress tried to make us prepare a bit to avert an energy crisis, be more efficient and independent finally as a nation in healthcare and energy. But this governor wants to tax us more for roads, borrow more for roads, spend all the stimulus he can on roads while his Superindendent of Public Instruction cuts deeper and deeper into Schools with every passing day.

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