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.

Idahoans See Alternatives to Deep School Cuts

I thought I would share this set of results to a survey I have conducted over the past month to see how people feel about deep cuts to funding for state services, especially public schools. 

As you will see below, people from all over the state, a majority from outside Boise, answered the survey. The survey was sent to a list containing more democrats than republicans and was available for all to forward to friends. It was also posted on my web site as well as on facebook and twitter where I have quite a large number of friends and followers from all over the political spectrum.

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In the week ahead the Budget Committee will vote on school budgets. Currently Republicans have refused to discuss tax increases or changes in Idaho tax exemptions to protect education, but instead propose cutting public school funding for next school year by 7.5% or $128 million. Some extreme factions propose even deeper cuts. Either way schools now face policies that will eliminate more tutoring for struggling students, increase class sizes, eliminate teacher training, further reduce access to textbooks, decimate funding for science and other academic materials, all while making many academic and after school programs more expensive for Idaho families and their kids.


Below, for your information, is a rough breakdown on where survey respondents came from.

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The survey is still available if you'd like to take it. In the coming week I will share results with my legislative colleagues.

Gravity

The state Capitol is set up to contain two very separate universes which revolve next to each other, passing material back and forth, the force of each tugging and pulling but both locked here together in the other's gravity.

Each day one committee breaks the division of the two universe model. The 20 of us meet in our early morning conference meeting and we laugh and tease and the great house-senate divide fades a bit to make us all just members of the Joint Committee.

Just yesterday, in spite of arm twisting, the Senate killed the House's hopes of denying state retirees a tiny raise this year from the state PERSI pension fund which has the ability to ensure seniors have enough income to participate in the economy and can afford the cost increases they face over time. We, the Senate, felt we did what was best for Seniors and the State's economy allowing the tiny raise. House members did not but still upstairs this morning the jibes were more humor than ire.

One floor down in the committee room, numbers become motions now. We are turning ideas for how to spend money into law. Each budget carries a number in parentheses. Those are the jobs we are removing from the budget. In a few cases they were already vacant positions, placeholders for a person already laid off or a position never re-filled, but the vast majority are real people's jobs, jobs which, as of July, will no longer exist. This is emotional for me, as is learning that we may have already priced people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in medications and that we could vote to do that on a far more grand scale next week, that we may well eliminate mental health treatment or substance abuse programs. I can't make these figures on the pretty colored pages stay as numbers only. It doesn't work for me.

So when our universes collide each morning, it is to me like watching the world of math meet the world of human faces. I see families in crisis facing longer lines and more uncaring government. It is not ok to me. It should not be ok to any of us.

Good Bye

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The whole pace of the session just accelerated tenfold.

The divisive and highly political anti-choice, anti-senior and anti-health care bills sailed through hearings this morning and so the legislature is well on its way to inviting constitutional challenges and keeping attorneys busy and well funded once again. We even take up hearings on politicizing state retiree benefits in Commerce Committee tomorrow. Do we help the economy and seniors or do we do what the Idaho Freedom Foundation wants?

We started setting budgets this morning too and in this, the very first day, there was a budget many felt would be harmful to the state, the economy and the people of Idaho if not given more money. While my personal first priority is not to hire bank regulators, I know they are necessary, but compared to a teacher I think I'll fund teachers… I even debated against the motion until Rep. Fred Wood said that not going with the same identical bare bones budgets and the same deep cuts for every agency will unravel the process.

I thought to myself, with the mess we are about to make of the economy what are we trying to defend here? What is there here in these cruel 2011 budgets so beloved that we would not want to unravel it?

All our reserves are gone and we have no stimulus with which to once more protect the state from letting prisoners lose or firing thousands and thousands of teachers and state employees. Who has asked the people of Idaho if they want to have their schools cut this deep? Can we even write budgets that work and balance given that the fist day we already fell off the wagon of austerity worrying about bank regulators. What happens when we get to children or people's lives and health?

I feel this pace accelerating and I long for the playful days of last week when we were wishing our first set of pages good bye, when Bart Davis, Kate Kelly and all of Democratic and Republican leadership stood in a big receiving line to shake hands and wish them all well. 

Everyone laughed each time one of the girls reached up and hugged Bart Davis because he doesn't like to be known as kind or as a softy. They all got hugs out him and a few even got one out of Kate who is no fan of the "touchy feely" either. It was charming and a bit sad since they were a particularly good group. But our new pages are here in their red sweater vests, wandering this giant gleaming place which is so very different from the place it was just a few days ago.

Hidden Agendas

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Sometimes our co-chairs Dean & Maxine have to balance and mediate very different agendas. Not an easy task.

Friday, twenty of us from the House and Senate met at 7 am on the 4th floor in a brand new conference room made for 20. This was the second of our early morning pre-meetings for the budget committee. We will have many more in the weeks ahead. We do not vote here since we are supposed to make public policy in the open, but we do ask questions and discuss consequences. Reporters come but the TV cameras are not there to watch us as we struggle to ask questions and come to grips with the language and process that often hides underlying agendas and grim hidden consequences.

Friday on a 4 to 16 vote those state agencies that the Governor had not already cut by at least 7% were put on the chopping block to be sure their total cut equaled at least 7%. A few like Public Education were, in a sort of slight of hand, given our last special chunks of reserves or stimulus money to make up for the cuts and to leave them "whole" or, for now, unharmed.

If you were a fly on a wall in that room or if you were listening on the internet as we went downstairs and voted on the cuts or holdbacks Friday you needed to listen for the word "permanent" or the word "ongoing" since this means something very different from a cut that is "one time." You can imagine the difference. What we did Friday the motion makers called "permanent" meaning that soon, when we start working on the 2011 budgets, the starting numbers or "base" will be a dire one. The 2011 budget will begin at the eviscerated level of funding already at least 7% below where it was in 2009.

So, so soon when we start voting to set the coming year's budgets, we will have no stimulus money and next to no reserves and, because what we will call the "base" already hides a huge cut, we will be making cuts on top of cuts. And worse, should we vote to eliminate a tax exemption, delay the grocery credit, raise beer or wine taxes or put in place a one time income tax surcharge enabling us to restore money to a budget, there is a conservative anti-government faction that can rejoice at the idea that we will have to ask for what looks like a budget "increase" just to bring an agency back up to the funding level it was at before the economic crisis.

This legislature does not increase budgets or staff positions lightly. It will be a struggle now just to put all this back together now that we have torn it apart.

You might say that for some law makers this recent vote is a dream come true. They have, in one year, undone decades or even a century of progress creating mental health and substance abuse programs, agencies to remove barriers in the lives of people with disabilities, entities that ensure that our drinking water is clean and our air is not toxic. How we put it all back together for the people of Idaho is anyone's guess.

Taxing Risch

Senator Jim Risch spoke before the Idaho Senate this week, telling the same jokes and using the same props he used a year ago. Democrats and Republicans noticed this. His address ended up sounding like little more than a tired partisan stump speech, void of substantive policy or real thought. The senator has been in office for a year and has little to say but how awful a place it is. Senator Crapo could have said the same but did not and chose to focus more on issues and on Idaho.

One has to wonder how completely U.S. Senate was Risch's fall back since Otter was then the one in line for governor. Risch shows little or no passion for issues of any kind. He is not a policy maker. A year later no solutions for how to better regulate insurance companies, how to save struggling small businesses or make it so that Idaho families are no longer going bankrupt over medical bills or the down economy. 

And worse the Senator spoke to us in a context where he addressed a state and legislative body facing the grim error of having bowed to then Governor Risch's very forceful persuasion to pass a huge tax shift that now clearly has put Idaho public schools in a dire position. Millions of dollars in property tax cuts went to out of state entities, huge corporations and speculators while schools lost over $100 million net and the security of more stable property tax funding evaporated. Yet worse families picked up the tab for millions in business tax reductions.

You can hear the buyer's remorse in the voices of those legislators who resisted the shift, voted no to stop what they knew was poor policy until given no choice in that one summer special session of 2006.

It was a less than sweet homecoming for the man who did not acknowledge the part he played in the budget mess our schools now face… the man who seems even to have forgotten or chosen not to care which speech he gave us just last year.

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