Who We Are

IPTV-jfac

Today Peter Morril from Idaho Public Television came before JFAC to present his budget. Peter is a tall man whose voice I'm sure you'd know: gentle, warm, phenomenally reassuring. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.

Yet Morrel had to set out before us the 33% reduction in funding that the Governor has directed. He was gracious and clear in the face of Otter's proposal to, over 4 years, phase out all funding for Public Television.

He gently reminded us that, no, Public Television with its public funding, can not just start selling commercial advertisements like any TV station to make up the $1.6 Million dollars in lost funds. And will a few more weeks of telethons in this economic environment make up the funds? No.

Do we forget, if we don't ponder the question, that Idaho Public Television is the only Idaho owned TV station in the state? Might it have been awhile since we watched the award winning programs exploring our own Idaho history, our heroes, our unique issues, this place with its canyons, deserts, forests, farms and mountains — everything that is so uniquely us as Idahoans.

Listening to Peter Morrill today I felt odd pride for the station that is in essence our voice. It is indeed as Peter said, one of the few things we have in common as a state. Public Television is of by and for us as a people. What state would give that up?

Ransom

Some days are better than others. Today was a better day. Theresa Luna came to the Senate Commerce Committee to present the "group insurance" rules of Mike Gwartney's Department of Administration. Someone had foolishly mixed part time state employee health benefits issues in with the rules dealing with the effects of Otter's cutting/privatizing state retiree benefits last year. 

So the committee was suspicious. The media came. We asked questions:

1) I asked whether having even a small percentage of part time employees fall off of state health insurance could cause the state to lose all of its projected budget savings — because, if even a tiny percentage of the newly uninsured part time employees faced cancer and spent every resource they had thus ending up on the county indigent fund, then the state would have to pay for their health care anyway — not just $200 more in insurance premiums — but the medical bills themselves — potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per person.

ANSWER: that kind of consequence had not been calculated into the fiscal impact.

2) Senator Cameron asked if, as Ms. Luna told us, the rule we had before us today was NOT Director Gwartney's rule dealing with the roughly $200 increase in premiums for part time state employees — then where was that rule and when would we hear it?

ANSWER: there will be no rule. Director Gwartney feels he has the authority to make major changes in the benefits of over 2500 state employees without any form of approval from the legislature.

Needless to say Director Gwartney has not made himself popular with the legislature and his department telling legislators to mind their own beeswax did not go over well. Senator Stegner pondered whether our holding the rule in committee might spur the Director to come in and explain himself to us.

Motions were made and seconded and indeed we held the set of rules ransom. We will consider passing them only after the Director has shown us where the authority lies for him to singlehandedly cut part time employee benefits in this way. I look forward to it.

These rules and this issue could have passed quietly over this session while men and women around the state sat over kitchen tables calculating whether the wages their part time jobs earn would pay for their benefits. Many couples have lost private sector jobs and the benefits the state employee in the family has been given have become a life line. Men and Women grappling with cancer like Senator Stennett and probably Representatives Collins and Marriot surely hold their breath knowing that the health care they get is a thin line between them and disaster.

And yet Director Gwartney with the stroke of a pen takes these things away.

He robs families of policies established by a legislature that knows the value of paying benefits to make palatable the lesser wages of part time work. To me it seems more than anything not about the budget but about cruelty, about demonizing government, most of all demonizing sensible government that recognizes we live in a world that increasingly leaves people vulnerable, teetering at the edge of ruin because they have no insurance, no access to care that won't bankrupt them should they ever get seriously ill.

Today was a good day and perhaps other good days will come when lawmakers who have grow tired of unilateral action will finally use the law to reign in the man with the flowing white hair.

Generosity

I went on Nate Shelman's show on KBOI on Friday. Forty Five minutes of people angry at me for talking about taxes.

Do I blame them for being angry? No. The idea of some amorphous tax increase frightens people who already struggle to pay their taxes. As someone whose small business some years earned as little as $5,000 to $10,000, I struggled one year to put food on the table. The tax bill I faced in April seemed staggering, impossible and frankly unjust.

So House Republican leader Mike Moyle and I agree on one thing, the income tax rates on the lowest of income earners in Idaho are way to high. The rates step up so quickly that people earning just over $25,000 pay the state's highest rate of 7.8%. People who make $100,000 pay that same percentage.

To me it defeats the purpose of tax brackets if the only real steps and reductions come to people earning $1,000 as opposed to $3,000 — incomes that are all staggeringly low. But some people earn money from investments and stocks and inheritance and I wonder why we tax the hard labor of someone who has no other income so much more intensely than money people may make with little or no effort of their own. 

I think Idaho could have more income tax brackets above $25,000. I think once the economy improves we could even use the revenue from upper brackets to pay to lower the rate on the lowest brackets. In 2000 the highest rate was 8.1% but it and all income tax rates were cut. I would propose we return to this rate for those with taxable incomes of $50,000 or more. Until the economy improves I think we should add two other higher rates at $100,000 and $250,000.

But the sales tax, not the income tax, will likely be the tax my republican colleagues will eventually choose to get us through this economic crisis and keep the wheels from falling off the basic services like education and health and safety now that Idaho has far more people in need and suddenly far less to offer them.

If I had my way for now I'd only offer the grocery tax credit to individuals earning less than $15,000. Right now the state absolutely should not be spending millions to send $40 checks to families like mine, that are doing ok still. The money should go to schools.

But all my rational for our generosity in having higher income people pay more taxes would not convince many of the callers to Nate Shelman's show. I like Nate a lot. Clearly though there is a fundamental difference in philosophy and maybe even a different sense of morality at play with some of his audience here. Caller after caller seemed mad at the very idea of paying taxes that might benefit someone besides themselves. To a few of the callers the idea of helping people who have less or who have fallen on hard times seemed repugnant. Clearly some feel no obligation to ensure that our neighbors are getting medical care, food or shelter from the cold. It is a set of values I can not answer to.

Yes, I'm used to my colleagues saying that churches, not governments should provide help to the poor. But what church can run Idaho's medicaid program providing medical and health care to thousands of people living with disabilities? What food bank could feed the never ending lines of people needing foodstamps now for the first time in their lives? What church could extend mental health treatment and support to all of Idaho's unemployed at a time when suicide rates are climbing from what was already one of the highest rates in the nation?

Our population has grown too big and too complex. While many may not trust government not to waste their money, the alternative is grim. And funny that it is the Constitution, the very document which some value above all else, which helps guarantee that we do not let people with cancer die in the streets.

People are suffering and scared, yes. But where is our compassion? The economy is thawing but not in time to save this budget, our schools and state. Where is our generosity now when we need each other most — when it will take our collective effort to get us all through this short difficult year ahead.

Who is Doing the Math?

Senseless policy passed in Health & Welfare rules hearing just now. In the Katie Becket Program we will take $1 million out of the pockets of families with disabled
children just to save $200,000 in the budget. This is only the beginning of what I
fear is going to be weeks or months of brutal senseless cuts. 

Look at some of this. $54 million cut from a set of Health and Welfare programs where the recipients of the state funds are all in the private sector. We took $54 million out of Idaho's economy and saved only $11 million in general fund state dollars. And we hurt people with disabilities, cut mental health treatment and left many families desperate. How many jobs were lost? How much expensive state crisis care did we create a need for?

Is someone taking out a calculator to look at what negative impacts some of these cuts will have on the economy? I'm going to be a broken record. A cut that eliminates jobs and dollars, wages, consumer spending and small business income has far more negative impact on the economy than raising income taxes on upper income earners. 

Who is asking the people of Idaho if cuts this deep are the best plan? I have a list of tax exemptions we can do away with. It might be more palatable than cutting our schools 10% to 15%. At some point you cut so deep that the wheels come off and things break. Kids fall behind.

With this seemingly blind frenzy to dismantle state government, who is figuring out where that line of diminishing returns is going to be? How long will it take and how much will it cost us, our kids, our economy, and our state to undo the damage that will be done if Republican leaders' only answers are to lead by severing limbs and cutting it all to the bone.

The Unlovely

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The 20 of us on JFAC, the budget committee, sit in a tall cream and white room with vaulted ceilings, columns and a big clock. We sit at banks of huge desks, far from each other so that at best we can see only the two CoChairs, maybe one of the Vice Chairs and the people next to us. Clearly I got too got used to the courthouse where last year we were packed tight and I could swivel in my seat and look any committee member in the eye. We could pass notes to two thirds of the committee with ease and were never so far away as to start getting impersonal.

For several weeks now agency after agency will come to JFAC to explain how state directors have held it all together these past two lean budget cutting years and how existing budget cuts are impacting families, jobs in the agency and workload. Yesterday we talked about the Department of Health & Welfare –a big agency dealing with a lot of crisis and complexity. Children with disabilities, adults needing mental health treatment, suicide prevention, drug treatment, victims of abuse, kids needing adoption, foster care; health care for those with urgent special needs, the very poor; hungry families, doctors, hospitals, psychiatrists, social workers, clinics, home care providers, crisis intervention specialists. Thousands of people reel, losing jobs, scrambling for life lines as we cut again and again at services which more and more people need — and the economy settles like a ship in the dark depths of what seems to be the bottom.

And later in the day a different 18 of us law makers sat underground at the huge high desks of the new statehouse auditorium in the west wing. We picked a number out of a hat — the magic target we will cut all budgets to for next year, for 2011. It was a low number. As last year's queen of picking sadly accurate low budget numbers, I'm usually the first to admit when things will be bad.

But the numbers some chose today were so low I had the distinct feeling that a twisted game was being played.

What kind of a time is this for games, for trying to cut the base of our budget so low that when the economy recovers — just a little — Majority Leader Moyle and his house wrecking crew can call any money above their target number a surplus and turn it into the corporate tax cuts they so desperately want, but realistically can't put into law this year.

I wonder if the Senate prayer delivered under the grand Senate dome in the morning anticipated the day. It told us to be kind to the unlovely. I wondered who unlovely were. I feel a little unlovely sometimes but I think it is relative and means those harder for us to love, people different from yourself, people struggling in unfamiliar ways, to us the ones that don't sit under domed ceilings or shake your hand in a suit and tie.

But we were not kind. Our legislative bodies are on the verge of being cruel. If we plan to cut even deeper next year, if we claim we have no option but to cut more budgets deeper and deeper till everything bleeds, then we are cruel. We are willfully forgetting that some families, like mine are still doing fine, still have jobs, and though we might be a bit skittish, we could and would pay more — just to be sure that the whole burden of balancing the next budget does not fall like and ax on the backs of schools, kids, and the state's most vulnerable, trying so hard to get through this alive.

Dreaming of Fire

This is my Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Day Speech for BSU's 2010 March and Rally. I will be joining student leaders, our Human Rights community and wonderful speakers at Boise City Hall at about 11:15. At noon we will all join the Human Rights Commission inside the Capitol rotunda as they return to the tradition of holding a Human Rights Celebration in the statehouse.

Dreaming of Fire

…To me hope is sometimes a fragile thing. It burned bright
in me a year ago as our country inaugurated a president who embodied the
reality of the Dream. I myself stood on grounds of our nation’s Capitol gazing
at the faces that now comprise our beautiful nation, a nation of colors,
creeds, talents and dreams that are finally passing from sleep into waking.

 

But today in Idaho I fear the collective light of the Dream
has suffered in the bitter months of this winter… sadly here we face the
chilling anger of people at computers and town halls desperate to place blame
as they stagger too under the weight of profound economic injustice.

 
We face the chill of Governor Otter’s proposals to
eliminate, to phase out, the few agencies of the state charged with advancing
human rights for Latinos, for people with disabilities, the deaf and the
blind….
our Human Rights Commission itself .

Idaho’s Governor rejects the very entities
we have charged with advancing equality and justice for those denied it for so long.

 

Is that acceptable to us?

Will that help Idaho further the dream?


Will this ensure the fair treatment of people we call
family, coworkers, classmates, and friends ?

 

No. We know this is wrong. Though it has been four decades,
Dr. King’s words still have the power to warm us and guide our nation from
within — like a bon fire. Sadly in Idaho while the dream often wanes, its
burning pieces are still held by each of us who hope, who work, who stand up in
the streets to protect or welcome others or to instill in our children a tiny
fire of their own.

 

But inside us Dr. King’s dream, our dream can be a fragile
thing, an ember of fire, a warmth and promise of justice that you — like me —
may have kept from the wind, may have tucked deep in your clothes –carried in
your chest, pulled out and held tight in your hands every time the world around
you faltered, made you unwelcome or fell in its progress toward equality and
justice.

 

And while hope glows in the windows of the white house and
in bits of policy in the nation’s capitol — while we hope for a day when none
will again face bankruptcy in the face of cancer – and while we hope for a day
when families will re-unite, fear will fade, and our country will recognize its
need for the nations and people to the South – that day is not yet here.

 

…..Instead we look up to a state government set on stalling
progress.

 
We walk streets that bleed harsh words while too many
Idahoans have waited too long, holding embers of hope smothered daily by words
of cruelty – a boy taunted on a playground for his delicate walk; the woman
with her children on a street made unwelcome; a girl trying in vain to get
beyond the stairs; a driver arrested for his differences, his color; the man demonized not
for actions but for the accent on his tongue. —-When our daily experiences
stifle the dream, we grow cold, isolated and the ember of that promise can fade
inside us.

 

I ask one thing of each of you today………. We can be a state
kinder than our policy makers. We can ourselves create a state of promise in
spite of those who would divide us, those who would marginalize or demean those
we love or care for, our neighbors, coworkers, family, friends.

 


I ask you to practice using your own voice, your breath to
erase the cold someone you know has felt. Think of someone who has faced hate,
who has stood in the face of discrimination.

 
Think. Picture that person now, see him or her in your mind.
(It is OK if that person in your mind is you.) I want you in your mind to
say to that person, to someone you have met, or seen or know…….

 


“You — your presence, your voice, your work, your
questions..”  I want you to say: “You
make our state a better place.”

   

Now whisper that aloud with me, look around, say that to
every person here who has reeled in the face of harsh or cruel words…… “You
make our state a better place.”

 


In your minds eye, your words, your breath, think of it
igniting that ember of hope just a little in a person’s hands, your words in
their mind replacing words of rejection they have faced once, twice, maybe
many, many times.

 

Say it again with me, to each other, this time louder. “You
make our state a better place.”

 


OK one last time, this time let’s make sure Senator Malepeai
can hear us inside the Capitol. Let’s have our words carry North to the Coeur
d’Alene & Nez Perce tribes, South to the Shoshone Paiute, East to the
Shoshone Bannock, West to Nampa, Caldwell, Wilder, high into the mountains and
to the place the person in your mind can hear us……..

 
“You make our state a better place.”
 

Thank you. Now use that phrase in the streets when you see
someone face cruel gestures of unwelcome. Keep Dr. King’s Dream warm, keep it
burning in Idaho — through everything that is to come, through what we each
will see and feel and do in our lives ahead.

 

May we be strong and united and may we never ever give our
seats or our voices to those who would take them.


MLK

 

Harder to Find

Night time. Senators leave in groups, out through the bright wings into the streets. Thus begins the many weeks of legislative dinners and receptions.

I am in my office. This is novel. I have never had an office before. I always loved working on the floor. I loved having others around me working at their desks. We mixed, joked, got beyond the hard politics.

In the Senate we all have offices now and, if you know where these are, you can find us there. It could be a good thing. But I worry a bit that it will isolate us more, that the three Senate office areas down here behind the committee rooms keep us a bit segregated.

The 70 house members have cubicles, not offices, also on the "garden level" off their underground wing. Some are lovely, others are just that, temporary divided cubicles in a virtually windowless back room. For this reason, and because I'm sure many still like the camaraderie of working next to each other on the floor, I suspect a good set of Representatives will still work at their rows of desks in the chamber. I don't know if this is true of the House but the Senate floor is cold now and though the historic red curtains give it a warmer feel, compared to the old courthouse it seems so huge, tall and formal. My office is not quite as beautiful but far more homey to work in. In fact, since I do not have a window, I brought a disco ball and it throws wonderful patterns of light on the walls and ceiling in the low lit room.

I will hold my first office hours Friday the 15th, 1 pm to 3 pm. In two weeks I'll start earlier so people can visit me on their lunch hour. We'll see how it works. My plan is for every other Friday and then a few Tuesdays as well 4 to 6 so people can come after work. You will be able to go to my new web site soon and see a schedule.

Having an office hopefully means I have a place where people will visit and feel comfortable. I have hot tea and lots of chairs. Like others I'm settling in to this space a bit. Four of us Democrats are tucked away behind double doors at the base of the capitol's 8th Street West underground wing. Don't give up in looking for us. All the Committee Chairs and a few others are in suites behind the row of smaller committee rooms. You will find the door at the base of the short set of stairs that leads back into the old capitol and the new visitors center.

At the top of that short set of stairs, near the old vaults where we stowed the lobbyists away, you will find two more sets of Senator's offices. Don't be intimidated, we are back in these areas, just a little bit harder to find.

Ideological Butchering

I expect a little more out of a governor. On Thursday we learned what Otter must have known for weeks: that to balance the 2011 budget we would have to spend nearly all our reserves and would still be $150 million short and have to cut everything, including education by 6% to make it all pencil out.

But the Governor seemed to have little substance and almost no policy proposals, no ideas for making up the staggering shortfalls. Sure today he informed legislative leaders he plans to eliminate funding for
Idaho Public Television, the Idaho Human Rights Commission, the Commission on
Hispanic Affairs and the three agencies who advocate for people with
disabilities. Together all these agencies make up less than 1% of the budget. Cutting them is not a budget solution, it is an ideological proposal which shows the deepest of disrespect and the most twisted of priorities. In fact this particular proposal seems intentionally cruel.

Do these sorts of cuts even remotely address our looming budget problem or make the state a better place for anyone? No. In fact the governor said several times in his speech that he doesn't know what the solutions to our budget crisis are.

State Budget Committee Co-Chair Maxine Bell said to me after Otter's speech, and she's been around long enough to know, "It will get better. It will pass." She had a vision of getting through this, but she, not Otter inspired a hope for a return to prosperity sometime in the future. I wondered if our Governor could at least ask us to pull together, to spend our wages at Idaho stores on Idaho goods, volunteer and donate to soup kitchens and homless shelters, donate money to help teachers and principals in neigborhood schools get by.

Has Otter given up on the future and on asking the people of Idaho for help, for sacrifice to get our neighbors and the children of our state through this hard time? Where is the guy who vetoed twenty bills trying to get a tax increase to build more roads? Has he resigned himself to cutting health and education budgets as the only and most recurring policy proposals he is willing to make? Will he cut deeper and deeper with each passing quarter next year, regardless of whether there may be a point at which the cuts worsen the economy, lay off too many workers, weaken consumer spending, and bog down the safety net that is feeding and sheltering families of the 800 people a week who join the thousands whose unemployment benefits have finally run dry? 

If cutting another 2% from Idaho's bare bones school budgets is ok, is cutting 6% then? Where does it stop and do we as Idahoans have to step in and do the hard task and ask if maybe there is only so far we can go in balancing the budget on the backs of Idaho's school children, college students, the state's poor, elderly and people with disabilities?

I ask would you rather see every agency cut by 6% in the year ahead or is there some tax you might pay some small amount more of to avoid the crowded classrooms, the long lines, the wait for permits, the gated parks, the hungry or homeless neighbor, the loss of recourse when you are fired from your job for no other reason than your gender, your race, your disability, your age or your religion?

Nationally the economy is recovering. Some states are still deep in recession, and, while we are in a budget hole for 2011, Idaho does not face nearly the worst budget situation in the nation. We do seem to face the greatest lack of leadership to create jobs, inspire confidence and address head-on this short term crisis before it stifles our economy and the capacity of our state and its people to heal and prosper together for the long term.

On the Eve of Return

I think I can safely say we all as law makers greet this session with some caution, some dread. From home with families, we leave behind jobs as teachers, accountants, small business owners, farmers and insurance agents and we converge with three months of furniture, files and tokens of home to settle here in the city with the gleaming new Capitol and hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls waiting for us in the year ahead. It is bitter sweet the hugs of hello and the battles we know are ahead where we will have to draw lines and choose sides on layoffs, pay cuts, the decimation of state functions, tax increases and cuts to universities and childrens' class rooms.

And it is an election year. That more than anything hangs in the air like an odor, a place we have to go soon where we have to divide ourselves along party lines in spite of how much we agree on so many things, where we do all we can to drive wedges, inspire ire in order to come out the other end in November victorious. For my Republican colleagues this year must ache because the fights within their own party are growing cruel.

This year probably more than any year we've known, men and women our economy has chosen to forget for much of a decade gather in parks and town halls. While others grew wealthy, these frustrated now gravitate into mobs bitter and angry, understandably ready to blame anyone in power for their plight.

Tea bags stapled to hat rims, people who may never have engaged in politics before this year stepped up to microphones. Now we all turn stunned when we should have known this was coming. Economies do not collapse without leaving people scared and angry. History has much to say about how easily a bitter populace can be manipulated by those with an agenda; insurance companies, organized political factions, or moneyed lobbyists with paid consultants and email lists. I worry that well meaning people have been intentionally plied, their anger turned on neighbors and newcomers rather than on those who benefited most through the hard time we face.

I guess this year I hope desperately for clarity in the anger, a determination to have justice in itself, a fair share, respect and policy to heal the wrongs rather than simply revenge hammered down on some easy target, some peripheral minority or individual who plays into racist or anti-Muslim fears. May those truly responsible pay; the ones who started the wars which drive our deficits, the ones who cut corporate taxes shifting burdens from the wealthy onto to average families, driving wages down and medical and mortgage debt up. Yes, let it be Al-Qaeda or the banks, the regulators, insurers and oil companies, but let anyone except the innocent take the blame. I know we all choose the guilty and the blameless based on our political ideology. How sinister is it though to manipulate people bankrupt, jobless, hungry or frustrated.

This year in those marble halls too may will look behind them on every vote, seeing the riled crowd looming large and forgetting the consequences of what the furious ask for. We all have a new draft at our necks, new whispers in our throats: "Please, please, don't let the angry see me as the enemy. Please don't let me be to them one of the evil ones."

Giving it Back

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I've wandered the Capitol under construction with tour groups of legislators when it was dark, dusty and lifeless. Then slowly as we were allowed in, I wandered as the echoing building began to grow inhabitants, offices here and there had staffers, legislative colleagues would appear now and then in an empty chamber wide eyed and wandering too.

While I generally don't seek them out, I've been to monuments, to cathedrals, castles, the Taj Mahal; huge human crafted places, large, beautiful or strange enough to inspire awe. I will say that our State Capitol rises to that plane. Its beauty, size, it splendor has reached a level it may not have reached before. Perhaps I say this because the absence has made our hearts grow more fond of its roomy beauty; or perhaps the walls take the eye by surprise because no one builds things from marble anymore; perhaps because the 70s paneling is gone and the wear and tear and funk I loved perfectly well before have vanished. Now it all shines, not just literally, because it does that too, but one can't help but feel how much thought and labor has poured into the place; how many hours of so many skilled hands have worked there in the dark and through these summers and winters.

It has been gone. The building fenced and ugly like a wreck in the middle of our city for I think two and a half years. Over $100 million dollars poured into it, into wages and materials and minds for their problem solving and invention. I did not vote for the wings or, because the bill contained both, I did not vote to fix up the Capitol. But it is done and in my mind it is enough beyond belief that I ask you to go take a look.

The money that could have put school children in class rooms instead of trailers is is gone and it will be well spent if this building returns to those who really own it. The people of Idaho. If you all step inside and look up, if you climb the stairs, explore the corridors, step to microphones in the new hearing rooms, then it will be money well spent. If generations of Idahoans step in the building and find awe and pride, maybe then those who study now without current text books or run science experiments without proper equipment, maybe they, when grown, will forgive us. Maybe they will not think ill of us because we built something for them too– not just a stone shrine to house our own lawmaker's vanity.

Last night and today the building has warmed with life and people. I hope for much more of that. I hope that Idaho might feel it has its building back, that it is yours, not ours, that it is a place we as law makers can aspire to be worthy of in our life times and for the three months we stay here borrowing the air, the beauty and the space to write your budgets and laws.