The Empty Room


Behind the Senate chamber, in what used to be the Majority caucus room, is a room with tall windows, red striped couches and two fire places. The chairs in the room are usually empty and sometimes the fires are lit. Today I am sitting here with the warmth on my legs. It seems someone should sit here. We heard from the Department of Corrections in the budget committee this morning and I had to contemplate life in there as prisoners are packed closer, medical care fails, food budgets are cut, staff face furloughs and tensions rise. Gives a new meaning to liberty. I choose my food, go to a doctor of my choice, move from place to place, room to room. I can not imagine surviving in there. And yet too as the minutes pass while the gas fires roar, across the country, Americans do not have warm places to sit or sleep. This room sits here empty. Someone should sit in it.

From the Senate Floor to the Wild


The senate floor is cold. The voices echo as Jenine calls the roll. Brad Little's voice is low with that lilt of humor he has. Edgar Malepeai gives our prayer, his warm, kind, strong self in every word. People talk on the phone, work on their computers as we read through the titles of bills on second reading, jump through orders of business to appointments. There are supposed to be a few fireworks here today over one appointee to the fish and game commission, I'm not sure which.

Shawn Keough gently reads the first resume. Denton Darrington is fiddling with his microphone but it's Senator Siddoway who rises to debate against the nomination. We do this, he says, to send messages to departments. I'm thinking yes, many here wish we could meld agencies to our thinking. Jeff says this is not about him ranching sheep, but about policy.

I feel a flash back to debating a Human Rights Commission appointment last year. Ruthie Johnson whose palpable distaste for gay people and those who step out of gender norms was alarming. Yet we rarely question appointments, even when it seems Commissioners fail to show up, fail to understand or work to further the goal or work of an agency.

So the gallery is filling with students, Senator Siddoway is talking about wanting to protect his sheep, his property he says, by shooting wolves, yet being allowed to kill one or two only. He has faced real loss but I wonder if wolves are at least as smart as my husky and know who has killed their pack members and if they have picked a fight with him now.

So Senator Broadsword begins her support for the Fish and Game Commissioner by saying something like that she hates wolves as much as anyone. Jeff Siddoway asks for a roll call. People move awkwardly in their seats, worried I think about not being seen as hating wolves enough. We are so far from the days of my childhood when girls hung photos of wolves on their bedroom walls, for their beauty and for their role in an ecosystem, their role in making the wild wild.

Senator Keough closes debate reminding us all that the courts have left us little room. And so the roll call begins, mostly ayes. Senator Goedde interrupts the roll to explain how he has hunted for wolves on his tag and could not shoot one, how Fish & Game even extended the season to allow more wolves to be killed and still the entire quota has not been shot.He points out that higher quotas probably would not have fixed this problem.

Just this morning I sat in JFAC listening to the Military Division present their budget and talk of a new wing coming into Idaho. I thought about a day about 20 years ago sitting in a meadow as a fighter jet flew below the canyon rim, wings tilting. This was inside the Frank Church Wilderness and as the roar faded, an odd sound rose, one voice and then another. I realized those voices, there so far from where people usually wander, were wolves, three of them through the trees at the edge of the meadow where I stood.

This was before wolves were re-introduced. These were wolves who had found their way to the quiet wild of central Idaho. That experience so rare twenty years ago, today is almost common and has brought us face to face with the very meaning of the word "wild." Do we still find anything to admire in the wolf? Are elk herds fewer or just stronger and faster? What and how much do we manage wilderness and the wildlife inside it? Outside wilderness we clearly pick and choose which and how much of each species we prefer exists. We manage the wild out of respect to ranchers like Jeff Siddoway, who in my mind should perhaps be better compensated for his loss. But where does the wild start or end? Do we ever manage the wild for the wild? What should we simply expect to face when we live at the edge of it?

Pan Back

The statehouse has been quiet today while many legislators are away for Atwell Parry's funeral. The long marble halls which connect the two underground wings seem empty, while upstairs movie cameras on mechanical arms swivel as Idaho media day shows off what is going on in on of Idaho's little known creative and often highly technological industries.

And here in the now marbled depths my inbox keeps filling with letters asking us to save Idaho Public Television. In JFAC this morning IPTV brought a second camera on line so that now in the coming weeks you can watch the expressions on our faces, the lines in our foreheads as we debate motions to cut, to fund or to de-fund every state service under the sun.

And still the wheels turn. Mike Jorgenson & John McGee's anti-immigration bills seek to make it yet harder for farms and ranches to harvest crops and do business. We debate again which disability services to make more expensive and whether or not we should mandate that insurance companies cover oral chemotherapy drugs just as they would injectable chemotherapy. We all work away on slightly narrower slices of bills — those with no cost associated. The Human and Civil Rights legislation that so many have worked on for four years is no exception. There is still a group of law makers dedicated to it. The group is more bi-partisan than ever and more diverse, fueled by success in adding sexual orientation and gender identity in similar non-discrimination measures in Pocatello, Caldwell and especially Salt Lake. 

This session will be like many others and yet not. There is no magic stimulus on the horizon galloping forward to make us giddy with relief, just sober numbers we can chose to change or choose to force the people of Idaho to live with.

Pan out to lines of people waiting for food stamps; pollution leaking into drinking water aquifers, lakes and steams that DEQ will not test for the second year in  row; school offices where administrators calculate which teacher will take the extra students as teachers and counselors are laid off; closed signs hang on offices; paint peels; state pay checks shrink. Pan back far enough and the place gets green-gray with peaks white, more eternal and seemingly impervious. We will get through this. Now is the hard part.

Helping the Thaw

JFAC, Idaho's budget committee where we sit in a room at big wooden desks and decide where the money goes, your tax dollars. Today the Department of Parks and Recreation set out plans for lay offs in their agency. I sit next to Representative Ringo who has been on the committee for I think six years. Shirley pointed out that our staff had listed how many years the fifteen employees had worked for the state. Twenty two years, 21, 19, 18, 17,16, several for 12 years… And who now doesn't now know someone with a family member losing a job as part of one of these many "government efficiency" and budget cutting proposals?

Meanwhile the Governor's office is straining to force agencies to strip back their services and staff, not just for the sake of us getting through this hard part of the economy, but permanently.

These are families, Idahoans who have children to send to college, food to buy, wages that small businesses in their communities are counting on. But we grind on and my impression is that we are nibbling around the edges. How we truly address the echoing hole in the middle of the budget is another question.

We are state leaders. If we botch this and underestimate the consequences of laying off people all across the state; if we do not inspire the confidence of all Idaho and do not help people feel secure enough that those still prospering will hire people and spend again, then this economic depression we face will go on.

Economic recovery is not a mysterious outside force that will swoop in and save us. It is the sense of renewed security  and confidence inside each of us, confidence in each other and in our leaders that spurs us collectively to participate again, to replace broken appliances and take a weekend trip in the car, to go out to eat and buy new socks or shoes. It is an end to our living so fearful that we will lose jobs, or our having saved enough or paid off enough debt that we feel better able to endure what ever is ahead. It is then, too, eventually, those who have lost jobs finding new work as those who are employed spend again at local businesses. It is all of us looking at the little businesses and families around us that we care about and helping them out any way we can.

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