Against Us

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For two years, we, the members of the House of Representatives have given the morning invocation ourselves. We have had an occasional guest chaplain, but on most mornings we could look forward to seeing the world through the eyes of a different legislative colleague. We have Buddhists, members of the LDS Church, Christians of all kinds and some whose invocations reflected a mix of respect for different faiths, including respect for the right for members to live without religion.
    This year Speaker Denny chose to return to the practice of having the same House Chaplain give our invocation in the form of a Christian prayer each morning. Our house chaplain began prayer today with this quote from Romans: "If God is for us who can be against us?"

Because sadly there are days that that quote sums us up all too well, I would ask: Since we have at least some Legislators who are not Christian, will we misjudge which God is with us? What about the definition of "us," who do we include? Who do we exclude? And which god or gods would take sides where all mean well and have good moral intent? And what if gods differ in their assessment? What if we have asked the wrong question and believe in our hearts we are righteous when we are not? What if we are divided, who is God with then? Who is God against? Is it not possible that both sides believe God is with them? If so, does this lead to greater understanding or to greater conflict?

Energetic Disagreement

The Idaho Legislature’s efforts at energy planning in recent years leave much to be desired. As legislators, we ranchers, teachers, small business owners, insurance salesmen and retired farmers gather in committee and try to learn some of the basics. What are the limits to how much electricity we can carry on our existing power lines? What new energy producing technology is being developed? What are the true comparative impacts to our health and our environment of coal, nuclear, wind, hydro, solar and geothermal power generation?
    Sadly we rely heavily on presentations from industry to answer our questions and school us in the basics. Ultimately it is Idaho Power, Idaho National Lab, coal producers and the very corporations who stand to gain from energy projects who take committee chairs to lunch, feed us information and set policy for us behind closed doors so that we end up with plans which are designed more to improve companies viability than they are to create energy independence and security for uncertain times.
    For example, our interim committee on energy did not set firm targets for renewable energy in Idaho’s portfolio of energy sources, instead our state energy office has been set free to focus on nuclear power whose lobby has been relentless in trying to convince the state that, though practically no other state wants to build new nuclear power plants, that Idaho should embrace the idea in spite of the fact that it ensures the storage of new nuclear wastes within our boarders.
    I’m quite certain that our new energy czar does not have a set of proposals or options from every possible type of energy producer on his desk. Solar turbines, tidal and micro hydro never seem to enter into the conversation. And what if we really thought outside the box and decentralized energy production somewhat, especially for residential usage? What if we heavily incentivized solar water heaters, passive solar heat and small energy projects on ditches, ranches and roofs across the state?
    Diverse and decentralized production makes more sense for creating energy independence and energy security for our state than giant nuclear project or new coal plants. Both coal and nuclear rely on limited resources and even with recycling of nuclear fuel, very dangerous wastes remain as by-products which will continue to accumulate and will have to be put somewhere for hundreds and even potentially thousands of years.
    In committee I ask questions and watch some of my colleagues roll their eyes at strategies to address the impacts of climate change, air pollution, and water contamination. We can keep feeding the folly that says we will be fine when gas reaches $5 a gallon. We can pretend we don’t really need public transportation and that the public will accept radioactive waste being stock piled next to the Snake River. We can pretend we can keep building subdivisions out to the horizon and never run out of water, never find a time when the freeways can not be widened any further.
    Without question energy and environmental issues are the toughest ones I deal with. They have become sadly the most partisan — I think in part because, as legislators we don’t know enough about science to ask the right questions. We don’t demand to know the other side of the story or demand to know who paid for the glossy publications or the monthly "climate" and "environmental" newspapers which appear everywhere we go. If we are to guard the interests, the energy security and health of our state and our population we have to be more critical and creative. Too much is at stake for us not to.

Pages and Hair

Unless you’ve been to the statehouse or our temporary quarters while we are in session, you might not know about Pages. I admit I don’t know that much about pages, except that there are quite a lot of them, that they seem to have a sense of humor and that they keep the legislature from existing as this insulated club of 105 mostly older men, and some women, with little or no connection to the generation now contemplating first dates, acne, college applications and a world attached to little or no experiential limitations.
    Sure some legislators are grandparents, a few are parents with kids this age or younger, a few of us are teachers, but it’s a very few. Yet we spend all day, five days a week with the equivalent of a high school graduating class, from an average sized rural high school in our midst, studying us, learning  the rules, the procedures and personal politics from very, very close quarters. I confess at first, it is a bit easier not to notice them, particularly in the balcony where we are somewhat out of the way on our two dead end rows perched above the main floor. Eventually they make their impression, they say hi, they ask questions, make a joke or hang there just outside the debate.
    Practically speaking, day to day, pages staff our committees, retrieve code books, pass notes for us, they run errands, make copies, fold letters, and congregate in a little room off the House Lounge near the snack area. Of course these are not just any high school seniors or juniors. They hale from particular towns around Idaho and tend to have last names like Lake, Andrus or Moyle, names that reveal their lineage and ties to the committee chairs and sheep-rancher-legislators they are the children and grand children of.
    Dan Popkey noted two years ago how the pages, if they had been the ones to determine the fate of the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (and civil unions and anything remotely similar), that this younger generation would have rejected the amendment quite soundly. Listening to their conversations this year you see them thoughtful and playful, exploring what party affiliation they feel fits, what hair styles they might enjoy and what law makers they might emulate or avoid.
    If you watch the floor session from public television or the internet, something I find hard to recommend until the session gets into full swing and we are actually beginning to debate legislation (as we likely will next week,) you might have noted on Friday that one of the pages on stage during the prayer had her hair in a pretty vigorously teased "do." The speaker called it a beaufont. Given that I am actually one of the now growing handful of gen xers in the legislature, I was not alive in the era of the beaufont, so probably can’t well judge how beaufont the hair was. What I do know is that chairman Dennis Lake’s grand daughter and page for the House Revenue and Taxation Committee has one fabulous, wild, gutsy hair-do. We’ll call it a horizontal beaufont. Kind of a giant, blond, back of the head, eye lash. All the female pages I understand on Friday were trying to apply enough hair product and combing techniques to achieve this level of hair. The Speaker took it well. It was much needed levity in a long somber week.
    As for the pages, they are here until half way through the session when they return to high school and a new batch arrives on the House floor. I suspect they see a lot more than we think. If past groups of pages are any indication, there are thinkers, scientists, writers, activists and governors among them. It will be a surreal transition for them I’m sure, from immersion in politics and issues in a stuffy, adult-centered environment, to home and school again. All the secrets of the House will spin off to far parts of the state with them. For now they are here, perfectly capable of judging us, our integrity and actions, hovering, hair flying, just behind us here, but ever so slightly invisible in the legislative process. 

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Night Time

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The Doors to the Floor of the House

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Entry to the Balcony or "Upper House" as we call it

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Inside The Forbidden House Lounge. Once the only place off limits to all but legislators.
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Night time. Four hard working Democratic women left on the empty House floor as the clock ticks toward 8:30 PM. Snow is falling heavy outside and I wander down to graze at the snack table. Pretzels. Two white shirted security guards smile and say hi. I say good night to them almost every night when the windows are dark and the halls are quiet.
    The stairs are good exercise. In the day I run up and down trying to find Senator McKenzie (who is busy with his law practice right now) or my cosponsors for other bills, going to committee, collecting my mail (which appears in growing stacks all day every day.) I open letters from prisoners, answer e-mail notes on everything from dog fighting and the grocery tax to the human rights act and a bill that’s trying to make it even harder for recent immigrants to hold a drivers license and car insurance.
    Each night my calendar in my auxiliary brain (pda) shows a mass of overlapping events. Receptions with the Hispanic Affairs Commission (which I serve on), dinner with water users,  disability community advocates, stem cell researchers and more. I’m back here on the floor though after just one event most nights, because I still have so much work to do finalizing drafts of legislation and getting really ready for that time soon when I will be juggling several bills at once.
    Off into the night now. Snow inches thick since I returned from enchiladas and dancers in colored dresses, statistics on Hispanics still uninsured, and warm hugs from old friends from years back or hundreds of miles away.

Words and Power

Serving in a legislative body, one might have reason to contemplate power. There’s the kind of power where one has a title and fills the role of figurative and proceedural leader.  Usually there is a power structure associated with this authority and it can be, if it chooses, relatively absolute. There is in here the power to coerce from a titled role. By that person or group’s power, committee chairships are given or taken, bills are routed or held, authority to levy campaign dollars or sway donors and endorsers is coveted and rationed. There is the power of the majority. There is the power of authority and experience which, with simple consent or agreement, with a yes vote on an issue, brings others to follow. There is the power of persuasion, a gift for knowing colleagues, knowing the body as a whole, knowing when to speak and when not to, what to point out, what to leave out and what to simply imply. This power is delicate and can be over used or over ruled. There is hopefully too the power of organizing others to a common goal, working constantly to arrange, inform, bolster and hold others in place, together. Always, with a single word, some in a body such as this, have far, far more power, coercive and perhaps, by virtue of political party or membership in the majority, they have more persuasive power than others. Even if the electorate of the state or a district rallies later against an action, the action can still be taken. There can be consequences, but those come later. This is a heirarchical structure, bound in formality. At a word, all the organizing and persuasion in the world can come crashing down and democratic — one person, one vote — processes evoporate into whirring fans and shuffling papers. I remember this as I work. I have to. Yes, I walk delicately, gently at times, trying to help move a universe with the fickle power of words.

Finding Home

Sitting in Rev & Tax Committee. Our Minority Leader, Rep. Wendy Jaquet has waited three years to get permission to arrange today’s speakers on workforce housing. Workforce Housing. That’s the term resort communities use for affordable housing even though in many places its not just people in the service industry who need a place to live, it’s seniors, young families, people who face a health crisis and can not work. I know we face a tough audience in here on this issue, especially if its not clear that people struggle with rents and mortgages far beyond Boise and Ketchum They struggle in Teton County, McCall, Coeur d’Alene, Bear Lake and Stanley.
    The questions from the committee are telling. Our Chair, Rep Lake, asked it it were not more wise to raise wages rather than buying land and building housing so as to create a class system where some people live in special houses or buildings set aside while others live in homes. He makes a great point. I passed him a note to ask if he would support a locally adjusted minimum wage up to say $21.50 an hour so that even those laboring for years in resort communities could have a chance at affording their own home.
    However, if saying we need to raise wages to address the problem is going to be an excuse to kill any efforts as helping set aside land and funding for affordable housing efforts, then we should all come clean.
    In the past two legislative sessions bills to raise Idaho’s minimum wage a dollar or two above the present $5.15 an hour and then to index it so it keeps pace with inflation have been killed pretty much on party line votes. I’m just hazarding a guess that there will be no real legislative effort to bring wages anywhere near the level where someone trying to work in a restaurant in McCall can own a home in town or anywhere near by.
     And Rep. Wood’s point about loss of land for trailer homes and later about how farms and ranches build on-site housing for workers is interesting as well. If only a school or gas station or cafe had an abundance of land, affordable, extra land, they could build a house or two on in downtown Victor, Stanley or McCall. But I think that is the point. Lots of businesses rent and don’t have land to build homes on for their workers. And as Rep. Ruchti from Pocatello pointed out, the whole town benefits from having people live where they work and having people housed rather then homeless or driving fifty miles to work each day. So a whole town or city should help ensure housing is available for those who work there.
    One can’t help but think of the city of McCall which recently mandated that a portion of all new developments include affordable housing. This policy keeps neighborhoods mixed, protects areas from air pollution, commuter traffic and sprawl and protects communities from potential economic instability that comes from having all members of a neighborhood or community belong to one single economic strata or class.
    Real estate developers were none too pleased with McCall’s policy. The Idaho Association of Realtors in fact sued the City Council to stop implementation of this particular ordinance. I suspect that if developers, builders, real estate companies, ski areas and down town merchants do not step up to create proactive plans soon, we will need more mandates. Either that or we can live with homelessness, live with dishwashers driving hours in the early morning dark through a storm, live with streams of traffic as people commute from distant parts of the county to work, live with more people turning down Idaho jobs because they can not find a place to live near by on the wages we offer.
    There are consequences to prosperity that benefits only some but does not pay adequate wages or at least offer adequate help with the necessities to benefit all. Idaho’s growth bumps us up against that problem, finding homes for those who need them most. Like homelessness, it doesn’t seem to go away just because we build one small shelter, make a few arrests or buy a ream of bus passes. There are root causes and eventually we will have to tackle them.

A Little History Made

This morning the Idaho legislature made a little history. On this day when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to print the first piece of legislation to mention sexual orientation, and to propose ending centuries of discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment, housing, education and public accommodation.
    Leslie Goddard, director of the Human Rights Commission beautifully presented the bill after an introduction by Senator Tim Corder, a major sponsor or the legislation. Some may remember the Mountain Home Republican Senator from a City Club debate in 2006 or from his past vote to ban gay marriage in Idaho’s Constitution. His support of this year’s legislation speaks loudly to the fundamental fairness implicit in the issue of employment discrimination and to the progress made on understanding of these issues over the years.
    Nothing, except giving thanks to those who vote well, is more important than dedicating ourselves to having positive, gentle interactions with legislators who are still on the road to understanding these issues and voting as we would wish. I will never fault a community frustrated with waiting so many long years to see a day when we can not be fired from our jobs solely because we are gay. Still, I hope it is well noted that Senator Little was one of the majority voting yes in support this morning, the man who bravely helped hold off the Constitutional Amendment for two years before bowing to extremely intense political pressure. Again his vote speaks to the importance of patience and how different and fundamental this issue is from marriage which so unfortunately intersects with church and religion.
    In what I hope will help bolster a budding coalition of conservatives and moderates, the BSU public policy survey this year found that 63% or Idahoans feel it should be illegal to fire someone just because they are or are perceived to be gay, that was a majority in every region of the state and both political parties.  Clearly those numbers take this out of the realm of being election year issue and show that basic fairness crosses all kinds of political lines. Who today doesn’t know someone affected by this issue? In fact, how many legislators still do not have a family member or friend who is touched by what we deliberate today?

Yes votes (note some legislators were absent): Sen Pro Tem Robert Geddes, Committee Chair Curt McKenzie, Senator Joe Steger, Senator Brad Little, Senator Kate Kelly, Senator Clint Stennett

Access

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The Closet the Media is Assigned to

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Reporter on the Floor

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Lobbyist in the Balcony

"Back Benchers" share a light moment in the back row of the balcony where the media now must be escorted to enter
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Access to the statehouse and to lawmakers is an issue this session. Normally the House floor might welcome a line of print reporters, photographers and TV cameras. Writers would sit in a neighboring legislator’s chair while asking questions in the afternoon or early morning. This year new signs are appearing on doorways to the floor limiting access to the upper and lower house not just for lobbyists but for the media as well.
    While i admit I didn’t want to have lobbyists filing in unannounced or TV cameras set up to surprise me when something was breaking and I had no time to think, I am concerned we have now restricted access to legislators generally. We operate in a tight space where, since all but a leadership and committee chairs have no desk or office but the spot we chose on the floor, we have little alternative but to spend most our time behind what are now closed doors.
    It is enough of a problem that Republican Caucuses are closed to the media and public. Democratic Caucuses are and always have been open, but now the media is hard pressed to find us when they have questions since they can not even see the balcony seats from a window to know when we are there.
    Access by lobbyists concerns me less since nearly all green tagged and registered lobbyists are paid and spend the whole day in the statehouse where they have far more access to us than the public.Reporters on the other hand often operate on deadline and are frequently the only access that people in some parts of the state will have to the law makers who represent them.
    While it might not be pleasant to be surprised by a bank of TV cameras, it is our obligation to respond when we are held accountable for a vote or asked to  react to an event that our constituents’ lives are affected by. I know no reporter who will not respect a request to give us a minute to collect or thoughts, find more information or otherwise prepare before we respond.
    It is curious to me that the issue of media access first came up on the balcony where I have noted that all the freshmen lawmakers sit. Kren, Crane, Bowers and Thane are all in the back row far from leadership and the Republican Party’s media handler. I imagine that to have an entire row freshmen legislators unsupervised and unspun far from watchful eyes might make some  in the party nervous. That row has established itself as a jovial entity: "The Back benchers." They hung a banner on the back wall of the house chambers over their heads this week until the speaker asked them to take it down.

A Killing Mood

The Idaho legislature is in a killing mood. Last week, happily the bill to close Idaho Republican Primaries to Independents and democratic leaning voters died in committee before even getting a bill number. Yesterday the House Revenue & Taxation Committee killed major legislation before it was even introduced. That bill would have let the state tax commission join an interstate compact just to LOOK AT collecting internet sales tax (we call it a "use tax" because the item actually isn’t sold in Idaho… only used here.) The bill would make sure that internet businesses compete on a level playing field with Idaho storefront retailers and small businesses. Roughly $50 to $75 million in taxes simply are not being collected, giving internet companies an advantage that potentially hurts Idaho’s local economies.
    Today, after a summer of work to craft criteria to re-examine the validity of Idaho’s many tax exemptions, Republicans on the Rev & Tax Committee killed draft after draft of legislation to consider actually holding hearings on these exemptions. The few of us who served on the interim summer committee were divided very much as we were this summer, with the exception of Chairman Lake, who a few times didn’t even vote to print his own bills.
    Rep.Lake is caught in the middle of the tension between the House and Senate’s philosophy of taxation. What looks like a party line divide is not entirely that, since it was largely the members of both parties in the Senate, working with Democrats in the House who pushed to look at how we approve tax exemptions in the first place.
    Today I put my legislation in two piles, "consistent" and "inconsistent," as we talked through seven randomly chosen tax exemptions and heard from the tax commission whether other similar entities were being taxed similarly or if the exemption we were considering stood out as an exception to an otherwise rational system of taxation.
    What does this killing spree today mean for average Idahoans? It means a continuation of arbitrary tax policy. It means we keep a system of tax exemptions passed largely on emotion and the power and influence of industry — rather than on the merits of each policy’s contribution to a predictable, fair and constructive system of taxation.
    So far this year we will consider only one of the over 100 tax
exemptions on the books in Idaho: a partial exemption to sales tax on items sold in vending
machines.

Visiting the Senate

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Today is a day to visit the senate. What used to be a longer walk around the glaring white marble of the rotunda, is a short walk between the brown granite and pioneer murals. Still I understand that Senators don’t visit the House that often these days. You don’t see them in our halls.
    The Senate has 35 members. We have 70. It might be said that they have a tad more experience since many served here before being elected to the Senate. I do not believe any current House members served in the Senate. The Senate is certainly more balanced in idealogy with both moderates and conservatives in Majority Republican leadership. Here now our Republican leadership in the House is all very conservative. It has created tensions and interesting dynamics with the Senate and occasionally with the Governor’s office.
    I consider it a rite of passage to have long ago first been grilled by certain members of Senate leadership. It is something which, when I was a citizen visiting the legislature, intimidated and frightened me. As a lobbyist in 2004, working on health care, consumer protection and poverty issues, those visits, though few, were a necessary trail. The longer the conversation or grilling lasted, the better off I knew I was. If silence fell too early in the conversation or you took "no" for an answer, you knew your bill was toast or you knew that the bill you were trying to kill was going to pass.
    Today those long, intense, demanding conversations are some of the more intellectually stimulating and important discussions I have. They are an essential, powerful part of the legislative process.  They let us test ideas and legislation, develop arguments, face potential opposition and humble ourselves.
    I lean back here in my big black chair on the floor of the House and know that this is an odd, foreign world, the legislature. Perhaps the realm of trial law comes close, yet not, because there is more chaos here, far more wonderfully random reminders of the complexities of the world. We are not trained for this. The 105 of us are elected. These are the early days of this year’s bills, the point at which they are still organic and slightly fluid. The lives and experiences of real people start to turn into words on paper now, and to keep that text connected to those who will be impacted takes no small amount of will. The potential to turn policy into a game of political expedience is always there. Always to be tested. I hope always to be resisted.

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