Walking Home in the Dark
The first year I was elected, I ran in Hulls Gulch, up the street from my house, two mornings a week in the dark before heading to the statehouse. Time seems constricted now. The list of things to do never seems to finish before more items are added or other pages tacked on. I’m sure lots of people live like that. I walk to work now in the dark and it gives me time to think before the day starts. I practice debate, strategize or just listen to my heels clicking on the sidewalk. Before being a legislator I didn’t even own shoes that made that noise. It is an oddly powerful sound. Woman with a purpose, big strides because these are sturdy shoes with heels, but somehow forceful and intentional.
Today I felt the other kind of running, the kind which has replaced my contemplative runs in the foothills where, for fourteen years, I’d talk politics or work through problems with my friend Lee and our two dogs for a full 40 minutes before work. This running now is produced by that sense that things are moving more quickly than I can hold them down. It is a sense that triage should have taken place earlier but did not because the patients are appearing out of thin air, so now it is being attempted in flight and is just not what it could be.
This running is the sense that comes from being one of 19 in a 70 member body where there are just not enough of you yet to do it all so each is doing a lot and just trying to keep above the the snow while the avalanche is barreling toward April and Sine Die. Sine Die is what we call the end of the session, the last motion made by the speaker to send us all home. For the first time this year I feel like my eyes are already running from that date to get it all done but it is ticking really loud, like those heels of mine on the North End sidewalks, click click click click.
Dr. Mary Perrin, director of programing. Idaho’s work at real rehabilitation.
Maximum security segregation cells
Heath and Welfare Chair Sharon Block and Boise Rep. Sue Chew leave the prison in the snow
The Capitol Annex is alive even on Saturdays now. Keys click at a desk or two on the floor and the budget analysts and bill drafters roam in jeans and base ball caps. Mike Nugent the lead bill drafter and long time veteran of legislative services looked like he’d come from a ball game.
I’m working with Republican colleagues Phil Hart and Lynn Luker on finalizing legislation to change Idaho’s sentencing laws to ensure offenders get supervision after they leave prison. This also for many inmates means better access to drug treatment, support and accountability to keep them healthy, productive members of their communities and families once they leave our state prison system. We hope it will help keep them from returning to an addiction, committing another crime and coming back.
Hopefully too it will mean less crowded prisons as Judges specify how much of a sentence can be incarceration and what might be set aside for transition and supervision after release onto Parole. This is particularly important for sex offenders, but for some of those whose main issue is addiction, we have a separate bill to help focus on treatment as an alternative to long mandatory minimum sentences.
Here in the statehouse we are wired and filmed. But nothing like the prisoners we watched from behind the glass on Tuesday. Rep. Margaret Henbest and I watched one man, shuffling, cuffed, long-haired and disheveled, he was moved from one cell to the next clutching some sort of white leather bag or purse. Everything about him screamed despair and bewilderment. What ever he did must have been horrible. But now his life is in that place, behind the glass with all those cameras, guards and all the pastel colors and white paint.
Downstairs here in the Capitol Annex, legislative services has set up viewing rooms where big TVs wait so the public can watch us when we assemble to vote on legislation in the House and Senate. The feed is now broadcast on Idaho Public Television as well as on the web at the IPTV web site. The cameras now are dead eyes staring wildly and blank at walls and empty seats. Most days they will click to life at 11 or 11:30 AM. At first boring procedural sessions will in weeks turn into long sessions of debate and parliamentary maneuvering which at last most people around the state will be able to find somewhere on the dial.
Carol Growhoski / Nicole LeFavour 2006
Some days it is harder than others to be the only gay person in the legislature. Ninety nine percent of the time there is no reason for me to feel it. My colleagues ask about my partner Carol. When I talk about what I did over the weekend I might say "Carol and I." I don’t think much about it and I don’t think they do either. At least not most of them.
Rep. Curtis Bowers wrote a pretty frightening anti-gay editorial to the Idaho Press Tribune the other day. Bowers was appointed by Governor Otter this year to fill Rep. Bob Ring’s seat. Dr. Ring is one of a group of Republican senators and representative who voted against the anti-gay constitutional amendment when he served in the house. Today I miss him more than ever.
I imagine some days it is not easy for Raul Labrador listening to the debates around immigration and how they so easily flow into anti-Mexican, anti-Hispanic and racially stereotyping tirades. It is an odd feeling to know that someone you work with doesn’t just perhaps disagree with your ideas or beliefs but feels that you as a person are lesser or evil or by virtue of your existence deserving of pain or derision.
Representative Bowers sits behind me here on the balcony of the House. I stood up a bit ago and went back to tell him how uncomfortable his editorial made me and how sorry I was to see he felt that way about gay people. He was willing to talk more about it. I offered to answer questions when he has them.
I don’t know if it will ever really make any difference since I understand he is a strong John Birch Society devotee. But I want him to see me as human. Even if he never votes in a way that shows he respects or cares about gay people, I want him to see me as human.
View of the Speaker from the "Upper House" where 20 lawmakers sit
So if you are looking for an update on Congressman Sali’s visit to the Idaho legislature today. I wasn’t here. I spoke to the Telephone Pioneers over lunch and this cool retired group of telephone company workers mostly seemed to feel I had made a good choice. I talked to them about taxes. No one fell asleep in their tasty potatoes and gravy (that I could see.)
It is surprising how early lines are being drawn this session. Before we’ve even see any bills, editorials against the utility of public transportation are being xeroxed and circulated on desks. Everyone is digging in. Perhaps because over the summer so much work was done to show legislators good public transit systems like Salt Lake’s, the stakes are upped. It has sounded sensible these last months so of course those who have built political careers signing anti-tax pledges and painting urban areas as axes of evil are now ready to make sure anything that benefits Boise is not signed into law. What kind of respect for the Democratic process and for true bipartisan problem solving does it show when the House Majority leader talks about ensuring that any place that elected Democrats will find its interests thwarted by this Majority. What of all the people in other districts who have similar needs. What of the Democrats and Independents in the minority in Republican districts whose communities are intertwined economically with these now Democratic areas? What of seniors and people with disabilities who rely on public transit to get to jobs, to medical appointments and for every aspect of their lives? What of commuters who are sitting in parking lots of traffic trying to reach work or home each day? Does none of this matter as much as ego or partisan politics? I think those who presume so much will be surprised in the coming week when they hear from angry voters and when they meet a brick wall in the often sensible Senate. We will see. But lines are drawn and we are all digging in.
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee met today in our little room that’s frankly not much smaller than the old one. We filed into the room and found our Committee Chair Rep, Dennis Lake chose to assign seating based on "seniority. " One can’t tell
if there is any indication of relationships to be gleaned from where
people are sitting. Rep. Clark and Rep. Bedke are at the little table
in the middle of the room. Rep. Clark expressed discomfort at having
Rep. Leon Smith sit behind him. Leon is a bold moderate whose served in
here for years. Smart, kind, well spoken, last year he was one of the
very few who spoke up and refused to let Denny’s Majority Republican
Leadership tell him how to vote. He was punished and his legislation
vanished. I’m watching to see how the dynamics go this year. Public
Transportation rests in the hands of those relationships on this
committee and how easily Leadership can lean on Canyon County
legislators when we vote on Local Option Taxing to fund buses, light
rail and local roads in the coming weeks.
We are the committee where all tax legislation must originate. A mountain of legislation on tax exemptions is coming from this summer’s interim committee. We had a great bi-partisan alliance there and prevailed in several votes as a coalition of Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and Bill Killen and I, the two Democrats from the House. We were not able to get a vote for a regular re-examination of ALL tax exemptions out of that committee. I made a motion to do so but a later motion passed and we never voted on mine. We will review a few. Not the ones I’d prefer us to assess for fairness and to ensure they are actually doing what they intended in stimulating the economy (rather than just shifting taxes from one payer to others.) Maybe with time. For now we will work toward greater accountability.
I’d not want to be the Idaho Children’s Home which called this week hoping for an anniversary gift of a one time sales tax exemption to celebrate their 100th anniversary. How worthy I’m sure they are but in terms of creating a stable, predictable and just system of taxation, we really shouldn’t keep adding to this odd arbitary list of who gets our gifts today.
Taxation and spending are reflections of our values: Who do we ask to pay for what we as a state government decide is worthy of our charity? Schools or more often prisons? Industry more often than health and environmental monitoring? Construction companies or mental health care providers? State employees or insurance companies? Under Otter you will find a lot of private corporations on the list and his shift from ongoing dollars to "one time" dollars means more brick and mortar and less service for our tax dollars.
Democrats including James Ruchti and Elaine Smith at the Governor’s State of the State Speech
In front of an impressive bank of cameras our Minority leadership just presented our state of the state response. It is important to understand what Minority means in a legislative context. We as Democrats, because we occupy less than 50% of the seats in the house (and Senate) are a Minority. On the day when we occupy 36 of the 70 seats here we will be the Majority party. (We are at 19 now, up 6 from the 13 we were in 2005.) At 36, Democrats would nominate the Speaker of the House who manages our floor sessions and theoretically arbitrates between the parties to make us one body, one whole. We would appoint committee chairs and ourselves serve as committee chairs in every one of the House’s 14 standing committees. It is an all or nothing system where those with the greatest numbers do not have proportionally greater power, they have immensely greater power. As Democrats we debate our colleagues and propose solutions. We vote as part of the body and in committee, often forming fluid alliances with moderate colleagues or those with issue concerns like ours. Can we blocked entirely if Republican leadership so chooses? Yes. And I promise this year I will watch to see whether force or discourse will prevail as a Majority party strategy for shaping policy and leading the Republican dominated legislature in its dealings with Minority opinions and legislation.Will we be allowed to persuade and ally ourselves with Treasure Valley Republican Legislators and others from around the state to fund public transportation, ensure safety and quality in day cares, eliminate the tax on food or pass more robust ethics legislation? Or will this Majority Leadership use a heavy hand and hard power to subtly or not so subtly tell members what issues they may support and what ones they may not.
So I didn’t go home. This happens a lot. The fans whirrr. The sound of the keys echoes. I remember how foreign the formality of this place was at first. Nothing in my life prepared me for all the woodwork, the gold leaf, the orders of business and the structured discourse. We are farmers, ranchers, insurance agents, retired business people, teachers and sometimes ordinary working people. When you first arrive, this place can not help but instill awe.
Trying to dress in the clothes this building requires is only one part of it. It is a lesson in class which I think those of us from rural places never got. Two earrings, not one. Shoes with heels, the tie for men, jackets for all of us, all the trappings of gender especially. And then there is the hand shaking. I’d never done that before I worked with the legislature. On doors when I ran for office, I learned to reach out and look someone in the eye. It was good. That making flesh to flesh contact that says I am not an image on a TV screen.
The formality here forces us into civility perhaps. Maybe it is best we do not get too comfortable. In this place we have a very specific task. We are here to do the business of the people of Idaho, not our own business. The formality and foreignness is a reminder, minute to minute that we don’t own this, we visit by the graces of those who elect us. This place is other worldly for me in a wonderful way. I leave here and walk past neighbors and constituents longing for my black jeans and single earing. But that will wait. We have at least three months of law making ahead of us.
Not in Kansas anymore. We pray, pledge allegiance, stand and sit at the gavel. We ask permission to speak and address each other as good lady or good gentleman.
Rep. Boe at the State of the State
Tonight I’m one of five legislators left. We’ve chosen seats, settled into our desks, played with our new on-screen voting machines, and finally proceeded to BSU to hold our annual, enormously formal greeting of the Governor and all the dignitaries.
Watching from theater seats, Otter strode to the stage, hair long, less fussy, now going natural and gray. He read from his speech which some of us had acquired in advance… local option tax for roads not public transit, 5% for teachers but only based on merit, private prisons and what I’d been holding my breath for: proposing again to shift all of big business’ personal property taxes onto small business and families.
For someone who says he cares about low income Idahoans and has a grocery tax proposal that benefits only those earning poverty wages, he sure has a funny idea of what makes a tax system fair.
Tell me does this make sense? You have very big businesses, mines, manufacturers. Some are publicly traded entities, their profits go to shareholders far away and you propose to cut $100 million in taxes and pay for that cut with income and sales taxes paid largely by families, small businesses. This is a shift of taxes. Small businesses amount to less than $9 million of Otter’s tax cut. (And we could totally eliminate their personal property taxes and give the big businesses a break for about $10 million.) But instead we are going to again do battle over the whole $100 million, a huge portion of which will be a flat out shift from one class of tax payers to another.
And don’t get me started on Otter’s enthusiastic endorsement of a Prop 13 style homeowner property tax proposal. That too is a huge shift. I hope Idahoans do the math. Two identical houses and yet the millionaire in one will eventually end up paying one tenth the taxes of the young family next door.
These proposals are bad for families. Really bad. They make Risch’s big business and vacation homeowner tax shift of 2006 look like a warm up. I expect more of this Governor.
Enough for the night. Time to head home through the snow. Tomorrow our committees meet and we really get down to work for 2008.