Rogue

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Morning. Sitting at my desk on the Senate Floor. The trees outside the Senate chamber windows now have leaves. The House has shut down. House members wander the hall in jeans. Republican Majority Leader Mike Moyle has on a striped shirt with his. Senators sit at desks, reading the paper, chatting and answering e-mail while Republican leaders decide just how we proceed. Senate Republican Majority Leader calls Mike Moyle into the back and we sit and wait.

Yesterday the House half of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee met alone and passed budget bills out to the House floor. Idaho's budget system is praised nationally for its efficiency and cooperation. The 20 member committee with ten house member and ten senators, four Democrats and sixteen Republicans, has, for decades, crafted balanced budgets for the state and kept our process smooth and consensus driven.

Yesterday's break from that practice is no small thing. This year with Moyle's penchant for running his 52 member caucus like a boot camp, and with him positioning to run for Speaker after Lawrence Denny retires, the stakes in these battles seem to have been raised. There is an assertion of power that is palpable in here to all of us. If we ever wondered if one man could hijack this process, we may have an answer.

On JFAC this year, Moyle and House Republican leadership got their 8 Republican members voting lock step on several issues, schools, state employee pay. They strong-armed the House co-chair Maxing Bell and she was caught between the House, Senate, Governor and her long and honorable place in Idaho's budget writing process and its history. But House Republicans control only 8 members of the 20 member committee. Shirley Ringo, our senior Democratic member and Wendy Jaquet serve there for House Democrats. So on those instances when all or nearly all Senate Republicans supported smaller cuts to state employee pay, and all four Democrats also wanted smaller cuts to state employee pay, Mike Moyle could not get his way.

I have no doubt this frustrated him. I sense he very much worked to find other leverage points. Maxine may have been one of those. I don't know. Not to get his way is not something he might not be used to now.

So to have the House yesterday have its half of the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) meet alone and pass budget bills, and then for the House to preemptively bang the gavel, adjourn and go Sine Die for the year should be a resounding message to the State of Idaho. That gavel sound was the sound of one man seizing power.

Even if I agree with Mike Moyle in opposing Otter's $80 million in new taxes and fees for roads in a year like this, the sound of that gavel falling last night sent a chill down my spine. It should send a chill down the spine of any Idahoan who cares about Democracy, ballance of powers, and the integrity of the legislative process.

Cement Booties

It is not like anyone seems to have a plan for how the Republican House, Senate and Governor will agree on anything and go home. Senate Republican leaders are trying to help Governor Otter save face. So polite. But at what cost? And why take the fall for him pouring himself such an oversized pair of cement booties? The House says it is going home with or without us. I agree, we should go. But Senate Republicans have closer relationships with the cement and engineering industry lobbyists who must be camped in Otters office. They say they wouldn't dare override the Governor. So how does this end? Cement booties for all?

Traveling in Sheep Clothing

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Carol and I got a puppy from the Caldwell pound, a husky mix, white, seven months old. I slept in the living room with her last night while she settled in. She has kennel cough so we are walking her at night and in the early morning so she doesn't touch noses with all the other dogs which she so very much wants to meet. With bird flu mixing with swine flu and all of us mixing in airports, schools and at concerts from here to the tip of the nation to the south of us, it is hard not to feel for Bighorn Sheep in their canyons across southern and central Idaho. They meet a wooly domestic sheep and wet noses touch and its all over, potentially for entire herds of what is left of the bighorns. Viruses and bacteria hitch hike from one of us to the next across the globe. DNA mixing and then multiplying until the microbes run out of habitat, like bighorns coming up over the canyon rim when rafters set up camps below and the jet boats roar. And so under a bill we just passed out of the Senate, someone will load up the roaming bighorns who touched noses with the wooly sheep and send them off in trucks elsewhere, perhaps to infect a different herd than their own. The wooly sheep, with their own germs, stay, migrate out of the hills in the winter to pick up more disease and come back in the spring. And here in the statehouse, more than anywhere, we all shake hands, touch noses, move on.

Dumb Ideas

With some certainty I can now say that sometimes, with repeated attempts, legislation gets worse, not better. The recent idea of spending general fund dollars on roads is about as bad as it gets. Proposing to increase budgets for roads out of the money we would be
spending on schools, when we have cut budgets for every part of state
government, including schools, is beyond unbelievable.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn has a great break down of ITD/road funding on his blog. He estimates that, counting stimulus and GARVEE and all the dedicated and carry over funds, almost twice as much money is available for roads in the 2010 budget as there was in the 2009 budget we passed last year.

But if someone thinks that I and others are going to vote for a gas tax increase this year, just to avoid a really stupid idea like taking from schools to build roads, they need to have their heads examined.

I don't hate gas taxes. I live in an urban area where things are not
all that far away. I am guessing that my friends in Challis and other
very remote rural areas might like them less. But if you want to charge
people for how much they impact roads, gas taxes are still pretty fair.
Fuel efficient cars tend to be lighter, less impact. Driving more means
more roads impacted. Pretty fair.

But it is true, voters don't want their taxes raised this year. Conservative voters especially. And they will probably never, not in any year, like the idea. Some voters, and it is no small number, are more concerned about the economy and see it as the reason we need to go home now and stop pretending we want to accommodate Otter's urgent desire to pass $80 million in tax and fee increases now in the depths of the most severe depression in modern history. Still others are bothered by the priorities demonstrated by cutting education budgets while raising taxes for roads. They might accept some kind of tax increase when the economy and state budget is in trouble, but not for roads.

Perhaps those many Republicans in the house who don't care about public schools are thinking this spending general funds is a great idea because it gives more funds to roads without raising taxes. Brilliant. Except that again and again, polling in Idaho shows that Idahoans care A LOT about public schools and education. It consistently ranks number one in spending priorities. If Republicans want to do this, and I hope they don't, voters are suddenly going to have uncanny insight into what really matters and doesn't matter to the Idaho Republican party. I suspect such a revelation might be a great gift to Democrats in the 2010 elections.

If having Idaho stuck down in the lower third in the nation on many indicators for the quality of our public schools was not enough, maybe we want to ensure we are at dead bottom in the years to come and that our kids have no option but to stay here to work in Walmart and all the chain stores that will represent the last of Idaho's increasingly narrow and stunted economy. 

But I hope this dumb idea fails and that we all look around and find ourselves at the end of our ropes very soon. I hope we get annoyed and finally vote to
override the Governor's frenzied vetoes tomorrow or Monday so we can stop wasting millions and go home.

Bloody Gashes

The Senate floor is nearly empty. The few left are answering e-mails on the stand-off and sharing u-tube videos of British singers and snakes. In one video a rabbit bites a snake on the tail and chases it across a lawn away from its burrow. In both videos the most unlikely prevail.

This morning Carol and I went running in the foothills. Cool air, early, quiet. Sunday there were sheep grazing and loose cows on the trail. It is astounding to be able to get so far from the Capitol by running out the back door. Boise is amazing, still rural at its edges, wonderfully so. Owls are nesting, our fruit trees are blooming.

When, on the way home, I tripped and fell on a rock and gashed my knee wide open, I was worried first that I would not make it to the Capitol in time for session. I had three appropriations bills up today and we were convening at 9:30 am. If we can't be in we can let leadership know and get a letter drafted for an excused absence. I don't think we had such formalities in the House.

Carol helped me up off the trail. We tied a bandanna below my knee to keep the blood out of my shoe, ran down the trail, showered, dressed, drove to the doctor, got seven stitches and made it to the Senate floor literally just in time to stand up and present the substance abuse appropriation bill and not miss a single vote before the Senate.

Time Bends at the End

This late in the session, time compresses. A meticulous and formal process that ensures bills get hearings, public airings, readings and time for debate, gets compressed into a Dali-like distortion of days or weeks. Weeks become days or hours or minutes. Clocks bend and the sound of voices requesting unanimous consent to dispense with the rules speed and rise in pitch until our words become like the drone of mosquitoes singing in a hollow granite drum.

So when the Governor's veto stamp falls, some things run backward while others speed and in a flash what was undone is redone. The veto, so dreaded, is just red ink on now meaningless paper.

This morning in the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee we re-did 8 vetoed bills in a few minutes. No debate. On the Senate floor, while we amended horrific education cutting bills from Goedde, Nonini & Luna, the House killed Otter's $70 million road tax and fee increase which Senate Republicans passed yesterday.

Like space squashed, stone and bodies and wooden desks warp like silly putty, we trade place on sides of votes, rearranging chairs while the mosquito voices hum. Republican leaders return from the Governor's office. Deals have been cut on more sides than any players may realize. There are millions of dollars at stake and they, like a magnet or worm hole, bend flesh, squish us all in fast forward through these last few days.

Dealing with Vetoes

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Apparently, the governor decided to send a stronger message. Here on our desks after lunch we got a xeroxed letter listing eight more bills the governor vetoed. I'm sure he didn't like the idea of us chuckling. But perhaps really this isn't a problem he can solve with vetoes. Sometimes you just don't have the votes. Sometimes law makers just don't feel they can go home and justify to voters raising their taxes to increase budgets for roads when we are cutting schools and health and everything else.

So what do we do when the Governor vetoes something?

We have several options. 1) by a two thirds vote we can override and pass it anyway. 2) we can run the bill again, even quite quickly with a long series of "unanimous consent" requests. All the rules of the house and senate mean nothing in the face of a unanimous consent request. If no one objects, its done. If someone objects it takes a majority vote. If we run a new bill, even an appropriations bill, it can be done very quickly. It has to be slightly different. We may increase or decrease it by $100 and change the "intent language" which goes with it and directs how or when or conditions under which the money must be spent.

The governor says in his letter, "I tried to be diplomatic and respectful of the legislature … yet it seems my efforts left many confused and questioning my resolve. So to eliminate any doubt about where I stand … I am vetoing these appropriations here bills before me immediately." He says also that he will continue vetoing appropriations bills, "until an adequate transportation bill is approved by the legislature."

What adequate means is a frightening thought. I do think there comes a day when the public tires of this, when the $30,000 a day seems just as excessive as the huge registration fee increases and gas tax hikes, all after a session filled with millions of new state and federal dollars for roads.

Odd Vetoes

If Governor Otter thinks his two vetoes have the legislature quaking in our boots, he might want to peek in the Senate just now. More laughter and head scratching than anything. An early childhood education bill with Democratic sponsors and a bill on security breaches and identity theft with bipartisan support. Neither controversial enough to fail an override vote. Neither will send us back to work as a legislature because the state can't function without it — as a veto of an appropriations bill would have. If a veto is a message, this one might be a whisper.

Alien Planets at War

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While it might seem that sitting in the statehouse would be the best vantage point for up to the minute news on what is going on in the statehouse, it's not. As legislators, we might be in committee when something big happens. We might be the last person on the Senate floor working away at an inbox of 5000 emails. We might be meeting with a constituent in the hallway and miss the great conversation in the lounge, where Senators who do not have offices sometimes sit on old furniture to drink coffee or read the paper.

If you really want to know what's going on you probably read Betsy Russell's Blog or you wander around the state house and ask questions. Sitting in one place is the last best way to learn anything. Bathrooms surprisingly are excellent ways to catch up. That's because the House and Senate share bathrooms and they are one of the few places law makers from both Houses mingle. The chambers may be 40 feet apart physically, but in every other way they are light years distant from each other.

The Legislative Services office on the first floor where bills are drafted is fascinating for news. While, by rule of the legislature, they can't and won't tell you anything about who is drafting what or what is being drafted, you do get to watch who walks in and out and chat with them about what they know and why they are there in the dark reaches of the statehouse.

If you are not in legislative leadership, which I am not, of course you would want to visit the Majority and Minority leader's offices. But They are on the second floor in their offices and we don't see much of them. Honestly I've gotten more info out of my Senate JFAC Co-Chair, Dean Cameron, than out of my leadership this year. Dean is often happy to help me figure out what at the moment is going on amongst the factions and who is behind which budget proposal for the next day. Sadly though what he says is has usually changed by the next morning when we vote, so I've made a note to chat with him next year right before our morning JFAC committee meetings.

Republican leadership in their dark back hallway will tell much in sarcasm. Ask a direct question, get a very telling cryptic non-answer. Often very helpful if you know the language and facial expressions. Of course you can not walk right into a Republican caucus meeting because those are still closed meetings with secret handshakes and rituals of consensus I wouldn't like to know. Our Democratic open caucus meetings, as open meetings, do not usually reveal anything anyone did not already know. That is why they are open. We don't say things we don't want the media to hear. Fortunately the media will share the gossip with us when they visit. Which is handy but odd but useful.

Of course this open caucus thing got a bit out of control this year. In the House, Dan Popkey, whom I like, apparently sat in on an open Democratic strategy discussion and then went off and asked a Republican chair woman what she thought of the strategy before the strategy could be put to use. Call me wierd but when I was a reporter I think I did see myself a bit like the starship Enterprise exploring the galaxy under the prime directive. Report but don't interfere or do anything that would change the outcome of the news.

So, this morning, I think it is fitting to consider the legislature an alien planet, this place with foreign rules, pomp, circumstance, odd language and traditions. Surely though the House and Senate are separate planets, or alien races stuck on one planet with starkly different languages, beliefs and diets. The governor's office would be yet another alien race at war with the first two. And if we continue our century-long planetary war, the people of the galaxy will go hungry or roadless or unstimulated. Perhaps they will grow tired and invade the planet of state themselves, bang the gave and call it done for the year.

In any case it is hard to know what is going on in here unless you travel and speak several alien dialects. I suggest Betsy's Blog. She seems to travel light speed and have the best universal translator in the universe.

Steelhead Whispers

The Senate Chamber is empty but for Dean Cameron and Shawn Keough sitting down at the other end by the open windows talking about the staff upstairs. They are trying to produce the final appropriations bills to legislate various compromises and deals that will close out the session. It is all sticky because two education bills are still hanging in limbo on the Senate Calendar. These affect the education budgets by cutting school programs. Adult cystic fibrosis funding also is still in limbo, as are school facilities matching funds, gas taxes, and the details of what is to be done with the Governor's $44 million in discretionary stimulus dollars.

So the chamber is quiet as the sun warms the world outside. My colleagues are cheery in their good byes. We wish each other a good weekend. Monty Pearce comes to ask me if we Democrats are holding firm on not raising taxes for roads while we cut education budgets. The words steelhead caucus have echoed on Republican lips today. This is a bit like the days in years past when the Democrats together with blocks of Republicans worked together to accomplish much in the legislature.

Some day, when moderate Republicans and Democrats get together, Mike Moyle and his conservative house leadership will finally have a problem. They will no longer be pulling the governor and Senate around by the nose. It will likely be hard on those moderate Republicans in the House at first. But if enough were brave, it would, at some point, become hard for Moyle to punish them all. From day care standards and education funding, to state employees, energy conservation and healthcare, things might change.

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