Friday and the Stones

It is Friday. Just Democrats left in the upper house. I’ve got my head phones on rocking out to a mix of Stones, Catie Curtis, Traffic, Amee Mann and Warren Zevon. Don’t ask. I’ve discovered this as a good way to transport my self in time and place, get work done and cheer myself up now that bills are falling, stumbling by the side of the marble race track, falling out of windows and finding themselves buried deep in storage closets. The budget is constricting like a corset just as we start setting state employee pay. My desk is struggling to stay orderly under a weight of notes passed in committee, secrets told behind hands and echoes falling through cracks in closed door meetings. Mid wives stop me in the hall. People streaming in this morning to speak so eloquently about our bill on Divestment from the Sudan. The place feels simultaneously like a benevolent father and a ticking bomb.

Fighting Words

Debating Dog Fighting. Donna Boe brought a bill two years ago and it was killed in the Jud & Rules committee on a party line vote. This year the Chair of Jud & Rules wouldn’t even let Donna Boe be the lead floor sponsor or let her be listed as a co-floor sponsor on Senator Brad Little’s bill. Floor sponsors are people who are assigned to present an agency or senate bill on the floor of the House for passage by our whole body of 70 members. I was assigned to floor sponsor a bill to adopt the Federal Tax Code (it actually slightly lowers state taxes) this year and will be presenting another exciting bill to adopt uniform mediation policy for attorneys in the state. I try to pick and choose what I floor sponsor. None of us is typically assigned to carry a piece of legislation we hate. Though it can be funny when that happens. Carrying a bill which was controversial in committee usually falls to the person who made the most debate in favor of it, or if the Chairman likes the bill, to the person who seems to have the best chance of getting it passed on the floor.
    The dog fighting bill just passed unanimously with Rep Harwood saying he was holding his nose while clicking his mouse on the green YES button on his computer screen because the bill says dog fighting could carry a five year prison term —  not because he wants people to train dogs to tear each other apart of course. We’ve come that far. Pete Neilsen in committee actually relayed a story about when he was a boy and how it was typical that he might urge his dog to fight another boy’s dog when they passed in the street. He was very concerned as to whether this bill would mean he would have gone to prison for that. The Prosecutors said it all rests in the word "organized" and how much anyone would agree he organized those fights. In committee Pete tells quite the stories of his boyhood. I know we all measure the law to our experience, but some do it more verbally than others. Pete must have been a wild one. Now he is renowned for outlandish questions which themselves tend to be ten times longer (and more slowly and dramatically delivered) than the answers.
    Jud & Rules is my next committee this afternoon. It is tense just now because our chair is in a less than happy mood. He told Rep. Labrador, Rep. Luker & Rep. Hart and I that we need to get an AG’s opinion, need to have the Courts, Department of Corrections, and the Commission on Pardons and Parole willing to state support before we will even get a hearing on our alternative sentencing bill.
    So far we’ve got 5 of the committee’s 16 members signed on a co-sponsors and many more expressing interest in seeing the bill pass. That’s one of the powers of a chairman. You can hold bills in your "drawer" and never give them a hearing if you want. I suppose that is particularly appealing when you think there might be the votes in your committee to pass something you don’t like.

Not At Ease

Not at Ease

When the Speaker banged the gavel and boomed "The House will be at ease," today the pages stormed out of the nooks and crannies and hung the "Back Benchers" banner on the wall behind the Speaker’s desk. They did the traditional end-of-page-term skit about their time in the legislature. A new crop will be arriving soon. I’ll miss some of these. There are some good genes in the Moyle and Lake families.
    Funny though this year for the what feels like the first time, not a single Democrat appeared in the skit. It is kind of like what is happening with our legislation this year. If it is at all substantial and has a Democrat’s name on it, it seems to be vanishing, typically for "technical" reasons. I’ve not checked with all my colleagues to see if this is universally true, but normally good bi-partisan efforts have a chance. I think the looming election year is taking its toll on the legislative process. I hope I’m wrong. That is the ugliest of partisanship — important policy being killed simply because the legislator belongs to the wrong party.

    Today while we were at ease we also had the Marriage Ambassador award which recognizes a married couple who exemplify traditional marriage. It went to Rep. Donna Boe and her husband Roger for their amazing work locally and internationally and for their fifty year plus marriage. Roger came from Pocatello to be here with Donna and accept the award. 
    It is Valentines day, and someone in the award presentation used the words "those who choose marriage." I have watched this award presented every year for the past four years. This year was the first year I got teary. Something about the words "choose marriage" really got me. It seemed cruel even if it was not intended to be so.
    It is Valentines day and I send love to my partner Carol as a legislative spouse, for all she endures in long hours, stress and putting up with my months of pre-occupation with policy and strategy and the daily drama of the legislature. To Carol who doesn’t get to attend the legis-ladies meetings and outings or have the camaraderie of others who live so close to the periphery of this often all-consuming place. 
    It is valentines day and I wish for all couples who, like Carol and I, can’t get married — I wish for you all a more compassionate world, a more compassionate state and a day when all our families will be as respected and valued as others.

Giving License

Sitting on the floor in my big black seat with my electronic voting board on my computer in front of me. We are beginning debate on a long list of bills. This is the first day since Rep. Lake’s stroke that we will begin again to tackle our backlog of legislation and send substantial numbers of bills to the Senate.
    The chair of JFAC, our Budget Committee is arguing we don’t have the money to make misdemeanor probation a priority. This is the kind of argument which has filled prisons. It is also a bit of a turf battle for JFAC as they don’t want to have funding detour around the Budgeting process and come automatically from liquor funds. More successful  probation and support for minor offenders will lead to fewer serious offenses, especially for substance abuse and mental health related crimes which make up a large portion of the crimes which fill costly prison cells.
     The other key issue for saving long term prison costs at more than $50 a day would be helping the children and families of Idaho get kids off to the best start in education so they find meaning in their lives, success in school and positive experiences and support to stay off drugs.
    We should be looking to find what every student
has a talent for, what every student is good at, what will motivate them to become engaged. That is the best of education. That is
how we can finally address the root causes and finally be successful at keeping them motivated to learn, keeping them strong emotionally
and out of the state of despair which leads to drug use, depression, suicide
and juvenile crime.
    It amuses me looking at today’s agenda, that Idaho law appears to require a license for caring for plants but I know does not require one for the caring for young children in day care centers. http://www3.state.id.us/oasis/H0392.html
    We graze a huge range of issues today. Fertilizer, trucks, colleges, health care, juries. I just voted no on a bill to release the state from a requirement that Idaho based contractors be included in those who are hired to work on the state Capitol restoration. It seems foolish not to hire as many Idaho based contractors as possible since that is the most sound policy for our economy, keeping state tax dollars in state to re-circulate.

Stressing Treatment

It has been a long road. I’ve found that legislation that is going to survive this process, requires that.   
  Yesterday House Judiciary & Rules Committee introduced a bill
I’ve been working for months with co-sponsors to negotiate and
finalize. The bill allows judges, in certain cases, to use drug
treatment focused alternatives to Mandatory Minimum Sentences.
Specialists with the Department of Corrections have told our committee
that prison
sentences of six months to a year coupled with supervised parole which
includes
treatment is the best way to ensure people recover from meth addiction
or addiction to
drugs.
    Prison is a pretty
violent place. Violence can be contagious, like desperation. We have
struggled as a state to offer women and men a chance of recovery and
better chances of returning
to their families as productive members of society. It is becoming more
clear that, for non-violent offenders, whose main issue is addiction,
more than eight months in prison can be counter productive. Our system
struggles to ensure that offenders leave prison less likely to
return to drugs or commit other crimes. Treatment and parole
supervision with random drug testing and resources for re-lapse are
important for that. With more hard work, Lynn Luker, Raul Labrador,
Phil Hart and I will try to make this change to allow judges to use
these types of treatment focused sentences where appropriate. We are
now joined by co-sponsors Dick Harwood and Eric Anderson. Having Senate
co-sponsors would have been wise as the Senate Judiciary and Rules
Committee is where the largest hurdle may be.

Childhood

Republicans on the Senate Education
Committee today blocked introduction of a proposal I drafted to allow school districts to offer optional all day
Kindergarten in Idaho public schools.

    Currently
there are 21,778 Kindergarten students enrolled in Idaho Public Schools. The
vast majority of these attend half day Kindergarten classes either in the
morning or afternoon part of the day. Typically, a single teacher instructs both
the morning and afternoon class.

    According to the education Commission of the States, full day
Kindergarten produces higher math and reading scores.
Offering parents access to more extensive educational programs which improve
reading readiness, and advance social, emotional and cognitive development,
reduces the need for remediation and speeds the development of important
skills which help students excel in elementary and secondary
programs.

    Currently, for the portion of the day when children are not in public
Kindergarten classes, parents are paying for childcare in a variety of types of
day care programs. In Idaho none of these programs is licensed and required by
law to meet state health, safety and educational standards, though in a few
areas, some are required to meet certain local standards imposed by city
ordinances.
    Ten states offer full funding for all day Kindergarten programs. These
programs save tax payer dollars by reducing the cost of daycare, providing more
solid educational content and by ensuring more children enter elementary classes
ready to learn.
    Idaho ranks 46th in the nation in
per pupil spending for education. Our lack of funding for all day Kindergarten contributes to
the low ranking. This legislation was intended to begin the discussion over how
to more effectively spend Idaho tax dollars to create a strong education
system which focuses on readiness and skills rather than expending large sums of
tax payer dollars in efforts to correct early failures in our system. All day kindergarten is one way we can use preventive means to fill the need for
remedial programs, to lower drop out rates and address the corresponding issues which
relate to juvenile crime and the cost of Idaho’s over burdened corrections
system.
    In my mind, together with lowering class sizes for students of all ages and extending the school day for some students, improving early childhood education is one of the most powerful and effective changes we could make to strengthen education and help Idaho’s young people reach their full potential.

Home Working

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I know I am not the only legislator home working late on this Sunday night. In little apartments in basements and condos, in high rises and simple hotels we work or sleep tonight. Outside it is dark and in my neighborhood the air smells of wood smoke. Like me, some legislators labor now over bills, researching, gathering co-sponsors, pulling in agencies and opposition to create consensus or compromise. Some come ready with years of experience debating legislation, they vote, work gently on their own strategies and issues and go home after the receptions and dinners at night to sleep. Look at the bills we sponsor and you can tell a great deal about us. As Democrats our bills may have other ambitions than just passage. We may have to use them to educate for a year or two, but already in my two terms I’ve seen several good ideas that were politically unpopular work their way to passage.
    Tonight as the ground warms and thaws and the capitol stands like a broken shell across the street from our temporary quarters, the wheels of the process are turning faster, starting to grind in doing the real work. This is the week the debates begin.

What We Fear

If you pull back and look at us from a distance,it is interesting what we as a legislature would seem to be afraid of.
1. Wolves: not for their teeth but for the fact that, to a sizable number of us as legislators, they embody the Federal Government. They represent that struggle locals feel as the back country is designated wilderness and federal law changes to reflect coming population demands, pollution and contamination and human health problems already urgent in cities. It is a struggle over change and over power. Some fear the wolf because we are accustomed to being almost invincible in the wilderness. We are accustomed to grazing sheep and cattle and making of wild places what we will, not what another creature wills. Even if we implant birth control devises in wolves and see their populations level, there will be tension. Even if we watch them strengthen elk herds, culling the weak and making wild game meat lean and strong, there will be those who still will wish wolves exterminated. Even if we are able to use federal dollars to pay for losses to ranchers, pay to cover investment and the future market value of calves, there will be some who will never see a wolf as magnificent or sacred, only scary.

What else might we as lawmakers fear?
2. Being without a gun. Unless recent legislation is only about the politics of gun rights, then I suspect that it is frightening for some of my colleagues to picture their own son or daughter on a college campus without a gun. Let’s set aside that moments of passion and drunkenness are perhaps the greatest threats to public safety, even for those who remain sober, and to insert guns into such an environment might not help make it safer. Never mind that suicide by a fire arm may be one of the higher risk factors of allowing concealed weapons on campus. I suppose too we had best set aside the notion that a concealed weapons permit is an adequate test for emotional stability or any indicator of its owner’s ability keep that gun out of the hands of others on a small campus with shared dorm rooms, open doors, and many parties. This week, as the legislature debates prohibiting colleges from banning concealed weapons on campus, we will contemplate what we fear and what we don’t fear. Will a change in the law create more fear or less?

Low Wage Jobs

The first term I was in office, we passed some huge multi-million dollar tax exemptions. One for Micron which we were told would keep the critical Idaho Tech Manufacturer from leaving the state. Micron has layed of thousands anyway and soon will likely be gone from the state. The other incentive we passed that year was for Idaho based Albertsons headquarters, who also threatened to leave the state if we did not pass their legislation. They too have sold and now belong to an out of state entity, SuperValue.   
    I actually helped create some of the "tax accountability" provisions in the Albertson’s bill. With the help of a tax commissioner, Judy Brown from The Idaho Center on Budget & Tax Policy, and a few republican colleagues we created a wage floor and beefed up requirements for employers to offer health insurance benefits because we wanted to create an incentive which guaranteed a return to Idaho’s economy in exchange for the cost of the tax incentives, which ultimately the taxpayers of Idaho would have to fund.
    Understandably some rural law makers were concerned that the incentive would apply to giant corporations whose headquarters would be located only in urban areas. Mike Moyle and others crafted the Small Employer Incentive act which mirrored many of the tax accountability provisions of the Albertson’s bill. A little group of small business oriented members of Rev & Tax worked to ensure we did not give away tax dollars to entice a company to come into the state and create low wage jobs which do not benefit but may actually be a drag on the economy as they provide no benefits employees can afford and may leave families in need of food assistance, indigent health care and other state funded services. In essence employers are welcome to create low wage jobs, we simply should never in my opinion be giving tax incentives to companies who do so.
    So this week we saw a bill to remove some of the wage requirements of the Small Employer Incentive Act. The change will require a company to first create ten jobs with salaries of almost $20 and hour and then require that all remaining jobs average $15.50 an hour  (with no job over $48/hr being included in the averages.)  If you do the math an employer could create almost 8 jobs at minimum wage and only two at $47.90 and hour and qualify for major income tax, sales tax and property tax incentives under this bit of Idaho law.
    With this mix of wages, how can we be sure this incentive is worthwhile for the tax payers funding these breaks? How can we be sure that our economy and state of Idaho will see a net benefit from this incentive? How much tax revenue will the wages generate to offset the incentives or will this just be a shift to other tax payers?
    We better ask these questions. And, in my opinion, need to ask them of every tax incentive we offer.  Further, I think we should ask whether the company in question is spending its funds for goods and services in the state of Idaho or has contracts and purchasing agreements mostly out of state. The benefit to Idaho is hugely different in each case. It is time we ask. And with the failure of this summer’s interim committee on tax exemptions to produce any willingness to really examine the economics and costs to tax payers of some of our exemptions, I’d say it is well past time to ask.

Suspended

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We have suspended debate and have an ambulance here for Rev & Tax committee chair Dennis Lake who collapsed in the heat of debate. He is conscious and fine, but headed to the hospital. There has been a collective intake of breath and a somber nodding of heads as we pass in the hallway. Dennis is the fearless leader of the committee which once was run by Rep. Delores Crow of Nampa. Lake has made his mark on the place with his fair hearings, level head and the half smile he slides into sharp debate.

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