Choosing Not to Leave

I have a huge black and white framed photograph of U.S. Senator Frank Church in my office leaning against a desk. He is sitting on a wagon on the front lawn of the ranch in Custer County where I spent many years growing up. Frank is smiling, his sleeves rolled up, thick hair brushed to the side. He looks kind and warm. I've not yet hung this photo on the wall of my office. I've not hung any photos. It is time to. I'm staying here in the Senate, not risking leaving JFAC where there is so much work to do next year rebuilding the lifelines, health programs and schools we have torn down this year.

So I will stay here, voters willing. Our seven Senate Democrats make for a small caucus but we must be mighty. Our four budget committee Democrats, Wendy Jaquet, Diane Bliyeu, Shirley Ringo & I, are settling in together too, getting a feel for each other and how our skills and personalities complement one another. Shirley is brilliant and funny.I have sat next to her morning after morning all year. Sometimes she leans over and makes some wise crack in the midst of something tense. She is like my amazing partner Carol who keeps my spirits up through the hardest of things. Humor is a gift I only wish I had like they do.

This morning JFAC finished setting budgets and we disbanded for now until called back by the Chairs. Now each of the agency spending packages, each harsh plan with its job cuts, furloughs, fragile operations and bandaged programs will now make its way into yellow and blue folders bound for the House and Senate floors. These have to pass both bodies now; huge cuts made while we left over $70 million in millennium funds and $35 million in grocery credit saving unused. Some budgets, like the one for Medicaid, have problems. They are not plans but cobbled together statements of desperation.

Below is intent language we passed this morning. Essentially it tells the Governor and his agencies "Good luck, you figure it out now."

"The appropriation provided in this act and the provisions of this paragraph shall take precedence over any Idaho Statute that is in conflict for fiscal year 2011."

It is not a stretch to suspect that there are constitutional issues with writing this sort of broad authority into the intent language of a budget bill and with allowing the Department of Health & Welfare to ignore any Idaho law they want as we tell them to figure out how to absorb $100 million in budget cuts while still providing medical services to Idaho's most vulnerable children, people with disabilities and those with chronic, life threatening illnesses like cystic fibrosis.

I also guess in all this that Governor Otter will not take kindly to being saddled with this job in an election year.

So this is a first but perhaps this is what happens when a powerful majority votes to gut budgets but doesn't want to be the ones who decide who lives and who dies.

Warmth

The calendars are getting full, the issues in committees and on the floor more weighty. Walking the long halls connecting the house and senate, the humor and kindness keeps it all together. We would so fall apart doing the awful things we are, if we all were not so determined to get along, to put every debate, loss and vote in the past and move on. No longer are the freshmen new. No longer is the chamber we serve in strange to any of us. There is a settling. The elections will undo this in part. They always do. It is both good and bad.

Of course I am feeling more loss now in looking at the Senate the way you do look at something you are planning to leave. My caucus feels warmer and the humor seems to find its way into our meetings and passings. We feel more like a whole than we have since I arrived here in the smaller body almost two sessions ago.

Of course all that may be my own sense of the wight lifting. Knowing you can leave something is very freeing. Whether you actually leave or not, it helps.

Freeing Us From Healthcare

I'm sitting down in my office in the speckled light of the disco ball.

Upstairs we just debated and then passed roughly 11 to 23 the "Idaho Health Freedom Act."

As families around the state pencil out wages and insurance costs, as they stress over whether they can still afford rising health premiums or risk shrinking coverage and care, we passed a bill that danced completely around the issue of health and whether people are able to afford it anymore. We debated for over an hour but the words are all air. We too danced in our political factions like John Travolta spinning in his white suit on that 70s disco dance floor.

While today small business owners sat down with employees to apologize for canceling health plans they could no longer afford, the Idaho legislature, an entity that refuses to regulate Idaho insurers except in the most minimal of ways, talked about freedom from government imposition, freedom from mandates. The Commerce Committee which supposedly regulates private insurance repeats its motto each week like a theme song "We don't do mandates. We don't do them at all." That means we won't tell insurers to stop denying treatment for certain illnesses; we won't tell them to stop refusing to replace a child's prosthetic legs; to stop refusing to cover an oral chemo therapy drug while covering that same drug if its given intravenously; we won't tell them to stop refusing to insure people with pre-existing conditions; to stop denying claims as a first resort, paying them only if the insured person has read enough fine print to know they have a right to appeal or challenge the company and its endless dancing army of lawyers.

While people all across the state chose today between paying the cost of their medications and paying for food, heat, or rent, we the Idaho legislature talked about liberty and justice and how liberty is less regulation not more — even if having to choose food over a heart medication is not liberty or justice at all.

Today we ignored the fact that it is the weight of paying for care for those who can not afford insurance or care that has caused health costs to rise.

Today we seemed to declare we have no responsibility at all to protect the people of Idaho from the giant and powerful insurance companies we have created in our vacuum of alternatives. But is it really freedom to offer no choice to the average American family except 1) pay hundreds of dollars a month for private insurance or 2) take full fiscal responsibility for the entire cost of any cancer, accident, illness or chronic condition someone in your family may face? What if people would prefer to buy into medicaid or medicare? What if they would prefer something besides private insurance just to give themselves some certainty that what they think is covered will be covered — some certainty that after paying for decades into an insurance plan that they will not lose everything anyway when they or someone they love gets sick, really sick.Where is the freedom there?

Is this the best we can offer as a state? Declare our sovereignty and do nothing more?

No it seems we won't solve this crisis for tens of thousands of Idahoans. We will just put on our shiny pointy shoes and dance around it trying to make people more afraid of change and of the federal government than they are of the uncertainty of what lies ahead in our current broken system where anything can happen anytime and you have no choice at all but to hope you are one of the lucky ones who doesn't get really sick until you are of age to have finally earned solid, affordable, efficient government care.

Going Home

Alright so a few people noticed that Anne Pasley Stuart filed papers to run for the Senate seat I now fill. It is a slightly long story but the gist of it is this: I miss the House. Anne said she was going to retire from her house seat and the legislature so I thought wow, I miss that larger more chaotic, wild and humorous body, I could go back there. Why not?

I figure if you are going to stand in front of the train day after day you need someone there to keep you smiling when you scrape yourself back up off those tracks. So yes, I'm planning to go back to the House. I hoped Brian Cronin would fill my Senate seat. But now that's where it got complicated. I will miss many of my Republican colleagues in the Senate, especially the four Republican leaders I've come to be quite fond of. Some of the best law makers there just hide that humor and others do what is brave now and then when they can, though not as often as I wish.

The friends I left in the house in both parties will keep me going for the long haul so I can stand up between the marble walls day after day to say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. And I miss the policy work of Revenue & Taxation and Judiciary & Rules. I loved those committees. But really we need more reinforcements, we need folks to understand that we need help in here. From one end of the state to the other we need you all to do the hard thing and run for the legislature, run to stand up with us when all this is so wrong. We need you teachers and students, nurses and parents… in Canyon County and West Boise, in Eagle and Coeur d'Alene, Moscow and Twin Falls, Emmett and Idaho Falls. This is not a presidential election year so the attentive and policy oriented tend to be the ones who vote. This leads to more rational outcomes. That is good for Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Next year in the House and Senate we could be a larger minority, stronger, more able to work with the more reasonable factions to get things done, to stop the worst of what is killing our economy and decimating more and more jobs. Until then we just have to tell it how it is and make sure voters understand that gutting education was a choice and that if we all get involved this year it doesn't have to be this way.

Heartless

We sit in a marble tower, two blocks separate us from the offices of the Department of Health and Welfare. This morning we passed from JFAC $100 million in cuts to medical services for people with disabilities, for children and for adults with medical conditions and not enough income to afford care.

If Representative Fred Wood had had his way we would have only talked about the numbers. What passed was not a plan, not a working budget but a huge cut with instructions to the Governor and Department of Health & Welfare: "Hope you can make this work."

Unlike with education budgets yesterday, none of the affected parties were brought in. No stakeholder meetings were held with the disability community, with people with chronic illnesses or with the hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses to see if this would work out. No, we have handed down a fly by the seat of your pants budget full of intent language acknowledging that it may fall apart by January. And if it does it seems that's ok because January is after the elections.

Fred Wood, maker of the motion, leader of the heartless, had the lack of sensitivity to mention going home as he wove his committee debate this morning there under the grand columns and the domed, cream colored ceiling. This is about going home. Passing this fly by the seat of our pants budget is about going home, not about us as law makers governing or leading or taking seriously our duty to do more than just make the numbers pan out.

Now we will watch the waiting lists grow and we know already that slowly the process is bogging down. Already the Department of Health & Welfare (whose employees are often some of the lowest paid in the state) already they close down half a day every other Friday without pay. Now they will close a whole days, close whole field offices so people if they have a car must drive and wait and perhaps still not get served, still not make it to the front of the line for help for a child, for food or something to get them through now that unemployment has run out.

Representative Wood, the scowling man with the mustache and thick glasses glaring over his microphone said we HAD to cut this budget as we did. He knows as well as I do that a single change in the grocery tax credit would fix this… He knows well that we could vote for one year not to give $40 grocery tax credits to Idahoans earning more than $20,000 a year ($40,000 for married couples.) The whole committee knows that this one simple $35 million change could prevent us from losing $120 million in federal funds and could have completely prevented us from making all these cuts in the Health Assistance budget this year.

This is where my heart sinks… knowing that posturing and protecting ourselves for our own legislative re-election comes before our responsibilities to the state and its people, particularly the most vulnerable. That is where my heart dies in this place, watching that over and over and over.

Standing up for the Chickens and the Cows

My legislative district is amazing and unusual. I grew up in and lived for many years in Custer County, land of mountains and farms and ranches scratched green in desert along flat spots by rivers. A place of very few people. I understand conservative, agricultural and small government perspectives.

But here in the legislature I represent a district containing far more vegetarians than cows or chickens. My district rests beneath the statehouse and surrounds it like a sea of trees and buildings, rivers, cyclists, sage covered foothills, trails. Ours is a place where people often walk to work and grow gardens and I think perhaps understand the Idaho legislature as a hostile occupation of our progressive turf.

Today we debated oversight of facilities that raise animals for food and meat. Senator Siddoway debated, saying that the bill made him nervous, even if it was as some said intended to pre-empt attacks by animal rights groups to make the state of Idaho look bad.

In the debate here below the red velvet curtains, nothing was said of the animals, the chickens and the cows, so I did stand to debate that the proposed advisory board was skewed, giving barely two votes of ten to speak for the animals and not those whose business is to make money selling their parts to the non-vegetarians of Idaho.

I reminded myself that humor is one of the few ways for me to make my way here without constantly being an unwelcome voice of dissent. So I stood and spoke for the chickens and the cows. Someone has to.

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