Ode to the Senate

O Idaho Senate with your flourishes
Your contemplative strength
How the House has teeth so much sharper

O Senate with your kind men and tough women
You strut as if these endings were your making
Why do you own acts so cruel?

For in your faces lies a sadness, in your eyes aquifers rise
The blood of a million and a half lives hangs around you
Will you listen to its cry?

O Senate your demons are the sly ones
Men with voices more self righteous than mine

My death here will not come from honored stabbing
But from from friendly fire
From cold flesh cut to keep me small

O Senate in your back-hall offices the lobbyists tarry
They covet your small numbers
Your love of fine wine and red meat

Let none come here to lead you into darkness
Your voice is that of orphans
Their quest is yours to represent

As a body of the legislature, Senate you demur to Gwartney and his Governor too often
The scent of moneyed scandals rise and yet you dally
Steel your bones, we've battles yet to fight

Your skin pales at my words, still you compliment my passion
I could stay to study at your gleaming heels
But my tolerance for pain fades with age

Aye, in your finance committee lie secret angels
In your gruff leaders hide impish saints
Faces of stone, you weep when the hero falters

Nay, I'd thought to leave but have grown fond now
Thorn in your steely side, such a view you offer
The space you give, the lines you've begged me learn

Should I miss the house? Yes
I shall wander East and visit
Gaze fondly at their casual dance and return

I'll run here to your pools of formal kindness
The body of thirty-five parts which together spin a brilliant, hard and haunted heart.

Gavel Will Fall

The Senate floor is warm and, with all the hours we've spent here now, the place seems somewhat homey and a bit less like working in a museum. The brads on the chairs have dug notches into the wood desk and the pages have had to pull the red curtains back to expose hidden vents so we have more air. We are settling again into the place, good or bad, just as we are about to leave for real for this legislative session, this election cycle.

We are going into the amending order to change some bills, then out to pass the Department of Administration's budget. Why we are waiting I can only imagine. Perhaps someone is hoping to put a bit of fear of god in Mike Gwartney. I don't know. The budget has some pretty nifty strings in it. It directs him to stop cutting state employee benefits and shoving the savings into the $100 million or so in reserves he is now sitting on. Still the budget gives out the whole $3 million to the Idaho Education Network scandal mess. While we have set up new legislative elements to the oversight, depending on who those individuals are it may or may not simply allow Qwest to proceed in spending dollars they were inappropriately granted as they were neither the lowest nor the best graded bid in the contract to build the high tech network for Idaho public schools.

But we are winding down, debating more law suits in the endless stream of those we are inviting, taking up and simply subjecting ourselves to by passing glaringly poorly drafted legislation. I would wager we might set a record for money spent on law suits this coming year, at the same time we will not give $150,000 to pay for life-saving medications for people with Cystic Fibrosis, some of whom will be hospitalized. Some could face life threatening consequences or even die. But this legislature has its priorities. Law suits. Defending and Initiating law suits. Lawyers. Huge legal fees.

Deficit Budgets

What happens when we set what we call a budget but what we pass actually does not provide a department enough money to pay those businesses who provide services, keep adequate people employed, or maintain the machinery needed to do the job they are charged by law with doing?

What happens when the constitution requires us to fund an adequate education and yet we send schools $128 million less than they need and tell them to figure out which children they will not help or which classes, services and teachers the kids will have to do without?

What happens when it is an election year and law makers hate raising taxes in election years, so they adjourn leaving a fictional budget, knowing they plan to come back half way through the fiscal year to fix the mess they have made, then, only after the elections, raising raising taxes to try to balance a budget for real?

This morning Medicaid sounded desperate in the discussion over $3 to $5 million in cuts to nursing homes and care providers. Depending on how you do the math — but at minimum Medicaid has a $22 million deficit — and the fight we had over this small portion was so intense, I can only imagine now what will happen as they decide what to cut to save the remaining $18 or so million they are still in the hole. And to be clear, this is not shrinking government, these are private employers who provide these services, and they will be laying off people who make very low wages and will go on food stamp to make it through.

When you consider the federal match which provides $80 additional for every $20 we spend, our state loses closer to $100 million in health services with $20 million in cuts of state funding. This is $100 million in health services Idaho will not provide to Idaho's poor, to the children and people with disabilities. And there will be no hearing for those cuts. Those will be done by rule in heat of summer, quietly, no way to stop what unfolds.

Out With a Hiss

The Idaho legislature is about to evaporate into thin air. Monday, the 105 of us likely will vanish with a lingering anti-climatic hiss… having cobbled together some fiction of a budget, some duct tape and pine pitch plan to make the nightmares we are brewing stay quiet until after the elections. 

I do not recall a session this short in my six years in the legislature. The primary election is rolling toward us. May 25. Like many of my colleagues, I face a tea party opponent this year, but mine I do not face until November.

With the many May primaries, the Republican party will start to consume itself as soon as the gavel falls. Moderate Republicans face the worst of it and seem frustrated. Some have suggested that if it gets much meaner they will be joining us on the "D" side. If enough came over, and the House or Senate were then fairly evenly split, they'd have a good chance at more power and at not being marginalized as they are by more conservative leadership. But all these are just thoughts said many times before over the years. How long does it take to grow few up? I don't know. If Democrats continue to bash Walt Minnick I suspect our moderate friends will be highly disinclined to feel welcome in our party. If progressive people want more power over policy, over health issues, the environment, education and human rights, I know it is unpopular to say, but we will have to be more accepting of a wider range of political perspectives. We will have to learn to hold on to the gains and the points of common ground without dividing ourselves over the things about which we don't agree.

Running Fictional Balances

This afternoon for the third day in a row we are again running quickly through bills. Hours on end of appropriations, memorials, resolutions and legislation with pages and pages of text and meaning. Fortunately for me I have already read most these bills in committee so I can ask questions, debate and even carry those assigned to me with some level of comfort. At some point though now it has started to get a bit mind numbing. Just now the Budget for the Department of Corrections was presented and the roll call vote began before I realized. No one else got up to ask a question, to debate this huge and delicate budget. I stood at my turn to vote and used my 60 seconds to say how I feel this budget will not hold. While the committee tried to keep our prison system from bursting its seams, in the end what we did will utterly fail to do that.

We cut substance abuse funding by $5 million and eliminated a waiting list of 2,500 people because the list of those needing treatment was growing by 300 people a month and our behavioral health division could not even pretend to address its backlog of those with addiction given that funds are not improving but actually again are going to decline.

So when we realize we have barely funded current prison needs, it is clear we are not prepared for prison populations to grow as they have already begun to again now that we are so utterly failing to offer people facing addition any alternative but to end up in prison or some other more tragic state that we and Idaho's families will have to grapple with for lifetimes.

The Idaho constitution requires the legislature to balance the state budget. This is a good thing in my opinion. 

I have worried though over the past ten years as I watched the legislature cut corporate taxes again and again in good years, shifting taxes onto families, a shift that puts the state at risk in economic downturns.

On budget after budget, I hear that an agency is likely to run out of money mid year. In this I realize our budgets, or what we are calling adequate funding to create a balanced budget, I realize this balance is, at best, fiction. 

Next year I hear Republicans plan to take up "tax reform" and raise taxes (after the elections) to balance the budget especially now that our reserves are gone, the stimulus is gone and we are more than half a billion below 2008 in tax revenue. I fear with the "reform" we will see more proposals that will raise taxes on families rather than any willingness to restore balance between corporations and families.This is a sinister trend and a frightening gamble to pretend this year to have some of these budgets balance to get through the elections when in fact this mound of paper, this funding plan for schools, prisons, treatment, medical assistance and all kinds of bits of government simply doesn't balance at all.

Madam President

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Senator Kate Kelly served as Senate President yesterday. There are only seven democrats in the 35 member Idaho Senate. Senator Kelly is the state's first female Senate Minority leader since Mary Lou Reed in 1994. Kate will be retiring from the legislature this year and so Republican leadership asked her to take the honor of wielding the gavel and running the lot of us through the orders of business and the hugely formal process of running the Senate floor process where we meet as a group to vote on legislation that has come to us from the Senate's ten committees. It was a delight to call her Madame President. Some on the floor stood fro recognition just to do so. She got a standing ovation as she left the diocese.

Losing Kate from the Senate means losing the state's most hardworking proponent of ethics reform. It means losing a legal mind with a strong background in environmental issues. It means losing a classmate and friend I have served with for six years, someone I have laughed with, prodded to eat more, talked of family with, respected for her frequent kindness and firm integrity.

It means likely that Branden Durst, brilliant, hardworking and on occasion religiously conservative, will run now to come here to serve with us. Kate and Branden could not possibly be more different. Branden brings to us though a sharp eye like Kate's, a voice that cracks and breaks like Kate's, but one that will surely learn (like all of us slowly must) to blend with it the kindness and deference to the proprieties of the Senate.

It feels like nothing next year will be the same here, especially without Kate. It never is though. This place is like water, ice, steam — year to year, day to day, minute to minute.

Finding My Way in the Senate

Yesterday's debate on the Public Schools budget was the perfect day to feel the true character of the Senate. Dean Cameron in carrying the bill on the floor spoke kindly of the process and the participants. Before I debated against the bill, I complemented the process and the sponsor as well as the hard work and long hours that went into the very budget which I was soon to say was a poor choice and simply was not the best we could do.

Republicans whose daughters and wives and relatives are teachers debated about how hard teachers work and how they will just work harder with less in the year ahead, how they are not in teaching for the money. In Senator Cameron's closing he thanked the minority, said kind things about those who debated against the $128 million cut to schools and then he went on to say how lucky we are and how much worse things are in other states.

The Senate is about civility, about decorum. We say kind things before going to battle, draw a flower and a sword at the same time.

Even while we Democrats made a motion to change the bill, to send it to the 14th order to take out the part that dismantles teacher's security, their contracts, the one thing that keeps politics out of the classroom — even while we debated this cruel language we were kind. Edgar Malepeai debated eloquently that the language on contracts cut to the very soul of teachers. His tone was even, strong and yet kind.

There is a sum of meaning, even said kindly, that implies that we Democrats feel that Republicans had a choice whether or not to cut this deep… and that they choose the easy path, choose not to challenge the house so that they could go home soon, all because it is an election year.

We Democrats asked the Senate to join us in adding $35 million back into the budget from the grocery credit, election consolidation and school facilities fund. But instead they chose to pass the bill intact, cutting teachers, growing class sizes, eliminating tutoring, saying good bye to crisis counselors, hours of
paid work, programs that help struggling students, academic materials,
text books, all the tools that we try to use to make sure kids
succeed…

After debate, Dean Cameron came over and gave me a hug, for that is his character, and that is the character of the Senate. After session yesterday we went and played pool together, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans. You have to spend time here together outside the highly charged environment of policy. That is what makes it all work, reminding ourselves that regardless of the blades hidden inside the cordial debate, we are human. I've long known that.

In Defense of Dignity

You don't know how slow progress is until you have worked for 15 years on an issue and have had to count movement forward in promised but hypothetical yes votes, numbers of co-sponsors and the quality of conversations you have with those many who have been seemingly dead set against the issue since you began.

There are hundreds of people in Idaho who have worked longer than I have to see some basic level of respect and dignity afforded to gay people by Idaho law. I sit in the middle of the place where this progress is supposed to happen and I see well that we have a choice. We can grow bitter and complacent writing the Idaho legislature off as hopeless, or we can work hard and cling to the incremental progress, to the raw numbers of people willing to put their names on the line, attach themselves to the bill to make this small change finally happen, even in an election year. It is glacial but if you look, there is something there.

This year again there was again of course legislation before the Idaho Senate to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho's human and civil rights laws, just as local governments have now done in Salt Lake City Utah this past fall and in Pocatello, in Boise and in cities and states all across the West over the past decade. This year Idaho's legislation however never saw the light of day. The chairman would not allow it even an introductory print hearing to assign the the bill a number and put it in the state computer. Yet realize that we now have four solid yes votes in the committee, up from the three we had last year, but just shy of the five we need to get the bill actually passed from committee and to the floor of the Senate for a vote. That is progress. In many ways that is huge progress.

Senate State Affairs is a tough committee. It grew tougher for human rights issues when Brad Little left Senate Republican Majority leadership to stand over the Senate as our Lt. Governor. Russ Fulcher, very kind and willing to listen but religiously much more the fundamentalist, took Brad's place in leadership and on the State Affairs Committee. 

Other committees are far less tough and this year's human and civil rights bill would have no trouble being printed there. In one or maybe two committees it might even pass. But State Affairs is the Committee that the Pro Tem and leadership use like a sieve for social issues. Anti-immigrant bills, anti-abortion bills, anti-gay constitutional amendments and now any positive human rights legislation. Yet this is the committee we have to go through to get even a simple hearing, a chance for people to explain why our state will be a better place if we chose as a law making body to legislate that injustice against gay people is in fact also injustice; that it is the policy of the state that discrimination is wrong and that gay people will no longer be omitted — because an omission of such an obvious and targeted group says only one thing: it says that discrimination and denial of basic dignity, human and civil rights to students, renters, business customers and employees in our sate is acceptable. We say every day by virtue of this lingering omission that such discrimination is acceptable.

Idaho is a live-and-let-live state. The fear some of my colleague's feel for this issue is strange in the face of the fact that so many people now know someone gay and that young people can not imagine why we live in a world where such injustice is acceptable policy. Three years ago 64% of Idahoans and a solid majority in every part of the state said that it should be illegal to fire people just because they are gay. What I know is change will only happen when that ordinary majority of Idahoans stop law makers on the street and say kindly that they care, that they support an improvement in Idaho law to extend dignity, civil and human rights to gay people just as we do to all people based on age, religion,sex, national origin, disability and race.

The legislature has heard from gay people for well more than 15 years and our voices I fear sometimes are seen as those of a tiny minority speaking desperately for itself. For a second year I say, we can't do this alone. We need our co-workers, neighbors, parents, friends, classmates, teachers and employers to speak up with us now.

I give deepest thanks to the fearless in the Senate who have stood up for and with us when it was hard: Joe Stegner, Tim Corder, and Edgar Malepeai. To former Senate Majority Leader Bill Roden who, with House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, was ready to present the bill before Chairman Curt McKenzie and the Senate State Affairs Committee, and to the 27 co-sponsors below I say, your actions and bravery mean the world to us. 

SENATE CO-SPONSORS:

Edgar Malepeai, Joe Stegner, Kate Kelly, Elliot Werk, John Andreason, Gary Schroeder, Tim Corder, me, Les Bock.

HOUSE CO-SPONSORS:

James Ruchti, John Rusche, Bill Killen, Tom Trail, Wendy Jaquet, Donna Boe, Elaine Smith, Shirley Ringo, George Sayler, Anne Pasley-Stuart, Donna Pence, Sue Chew, Liz Chavez, Phylis King, Branden Durst, Grant Burgoyne, Elfreda Higgins, Brain Cronin.

This list does not include the many Republicans and Democrats who now will vote for the bill when it comes to the floor of the House and Senate, that list is growing long and wonderful. These above are the law makers willing to put their names on the line up front. I hope you will thank them.

To sign the petition in support of next year's legislation and to get involved go HERE.

Closing Day

Friday at 5 pm the candidate filing closes. Last chance. Outside Boise many races have no challengers still.

Many of the candidates do file on the last day. It is the big surprise day. I know of two more great candidates about to file in District 19. Other places I don't know about so I worry. I figure it is better when a seat is vacant to have too many people jump in and to sort it out later rather than to have no Democrats run because everyone is waiting politely, afraid someone better wants the seat.

We need willing people, problem solvers and passionate people. We need those brave enough to stand in front of the train with us, to stand up with school kids, the lowest paid state workers, teachers, counselors, people with disabilities, the state's Hispanic communities, the elderly, those literally dying for substance abuse treatment, those who have lost jobs, run out of unemployment, those who need a state legislature that does more than pretend to balance a budget to look good in an election year.

Money will literally run out in several state budgets right after the elections. Some will run into the red sooner. We know that now yet here this week we push those budgets to the floor and into law. Some seem to feel that the bigger the train wreck we create this year, the easier it will be for them to raise taxes next year.

We are talking about people's lives here. If you all plan to raise taxes, be honest and do it this year before schools lose their best teachers, before kids sit in crowded classrooms slowly falling behind, and before people with chronic illnesses run out of their medications and end up in the hospital. I wish we would all just be honest, not hurt people to justify what we know must do to fix the hole we blew in the state budget with all the corporate and special interest taxes we have cut this past decade.

So tomorrow is closing day and I know my speech here is not uplifting, it is damn depressing, but if it makes you mad and makes you want to do something about it  then look at the filings and if no one is running, put your name in. The Idaho Secretary of state has the forms on line. You can get them notarized and faxed back by 5 pm. Burley to Eagle, Twin Falls to Coeur d'Alene, we need you in here.

I stay in here and serve because I care. I need to say too what an honor it is. It is hard but it is an honor to serve doing what I think is right, standing up for those in the state with so little voice in here. This place can only get better if more people run. We have to keep the debate going, it makes the policy better when races are challenged, even if you don't win the first time.

Someone winning one new seat in the house can change everything, get Democrats more seats on committees, give us a larger voice, more energy and momentum. To me, the party is the people who do these basic critical things like run and volunteer and get the work done. We make the party what we want it to be. If you think something can be better, it can. That's your job and mine. I choose to make this party a party that cares, cares deeply and with that I try with all my might to make a difference.

Killing Things

My parents hunted, both of them, birds, deer, elk, rabbits. I had rabbit pelts in my doll house as a child. I still have one of those pelts at home, a bit worse for wear. When they shot game, my parents used as much of the animals as they could, not just the meat but there was something reverent about how they contemplated what would be useful.

Tuesday the Senate passed a bill changing what we define as waste. We loosened the idea of what it means to waste an animal you have hunted and killed. In another bill we allowed out of state hunters to get bonus permission to kill wolves if they do not kill an elk or deer. This is not an animal they will eat or even necessarily be able to take home as a trophy on the plane, but an animal they can legally kill and leave dead where it fell.

A few weeks ago we changed the law as to how we decide what constitutes humane killing of chickens and livestock. A panel of representatives mostly from the livestock industry will soon decide.

I debate how to respectfully say that we seem to have lost our reverence for those things we kill to feed ourselves. Personally I am not one who would ever kill an animal for amusement, for sport. I have killed animals for mercy and would hunt for food. I wonder is there no balance where we admire the beauty of and life of an animal? Its role in relation to the plants and animals around it?

I wonder about all those carcases out there. Does someone take a photo with the dead wolf, the mountain lion or the bear? Cut off a part as a souvenir? Or with an elk or deer do people just walk away from all parts but the now lawfully designated edible portions? At least the eating of an animal is personal and thus somehow reverent. It does not get much more personal than that.

I know the wild has an astounding capacity to absorb the dead. Creatures large and small dissemble carcases. Bugs and birds spread what is left far and wide, until all that remains is a hard, white shadow, the bones.

 

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