The Wolf Was Framed

Rather than a policy discussion, Senator Lodge has shared a story in presenting before the Budget committee this morning. She sees the legislature as a wolf that accidentally knocked down a straw house and a stick house, killed some pigs and ate them — not to waste them of course. In her mind and in her analogy Idahoans should have sympathy for us, the wolf (and isn't THAT ironic) because we are just trying to do our best and make a cake for our granny and get through this economic time, and if a few pigs die we are sorry. Really.

Nearsighted Conservation

Senator Siddoway has asked a series of questions about land conservation easements this morning. He said he opposes them because they are near sighted. The idea of preserving agricultural land as a farm or as wildlife habitat into perpetuity is near sighted. From the questions the good Senator asked, he had a ways to go to understand how easements work.

Can the land change hands? Yes.

Who makes sure it is preserved as the easement promises? A land trust.

Does that hurt the tax base of the county and local area? No since the land remains agricultural and may allow some forms of development on some small parts of the land, it may increase the taxable value. Even more important, the preservation of the land may increase the value of neighboring land which enjoys the wildlife, scenery and benefit of not being next to yet another house, road or subdivision.

We had before us a Supplemental Appropriations bill for an easement to preserve in perpetuity the Breckenridge Ranch along the Teton river. Supplementals are bills that allow for spending for a previous fiscal year. They allow new money to be spent and unexpected costs to be covered.

Senator Siddoway voted no, even Senator Mortimer who is a developer made the motion and voted yes. I think the fear of conservation is fading in the face of endless darkened subdivisions. Democrat and Republican can feel love for an open field, the sight of elk grazing, eagles in the tress, the sound of cranes calling. As Idahoans we have a sense of the future, what we do and don't want it to be. It is not near sighted, it is wise. I like seeing this in my colleagues. It gives me hope.

Schools on the Line

Looking at the legislative budget book I realize that the public schools and other budgets now are more or less fiction. You can go on line and look at the whole state budget. It is pages and pages and pages of numbers with some good narratives a little bit of year to year comparison and a few graphs. But when you look, you need to know a few things.

1) As of Friday we have voted not to spend as much money as even these bare bones budgets propose.

2) While the cuts don't say 14% or 10% these are cuts on top of cuts. Many cuts from last year were "made permanent" or now are the "base" from which we will set future budgets. We are digging downward. In mental health and substance abuse, in schools, when we look at the already bare bones health care we provide for people whose wages are too low to afford insurance we are undoing decades and years of progress in two short years.

3) We had stimulus money for schools last year when we set budgets. We don't have it this year.

4) To balance the budget now, after Friday's vote, we would have to cut school budgets, teachers, heat, lights, buses, counselors, everything by something like 15%. That is what will begin to happen next week unless my colleagues fear going home to constituents and admitting, yes we increased class sizes, laid off teachers and did nothing but cut deep deep into our public schools. It is up to the people of the state to render the fear of hurting schools perhaps more loathsome than the fear of not singing to the tea party tune of lowering taxes until there is little, less or no government left at all.

5) Over the course of history, budget bills have been killed by those unwilling to carry home the weight or harm of the budget to their districts. This sort of thing requires us to start over, to reassess what we had considered doing.

The Glass

This morning we set the state's fate in motion.  

The debate was about optimism and pessimism. It was about whether we want to cut thousands of jobs now as a preemptive measure or wait, and, only if things are worse then we expect, cut as many as we must later. The debate was about the economy and whether we could impact it with the vote we were about to make. We debated eliminating millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars in jobs and contracts to private business and whether that would affect Idahoans whose shops, restaurants, markets, farms and production facilities depend on the wages of people in their communities.

We debated the appropriate size of government and whether government schools, government health services, government prisons and government consumer protections would be improved or rendered less effective with more cuts.

The debate soon became about the glass being half full or being half empty and whether we might do something so dire as to knock the bottom out of the glass itself with our vote.

We voted and from here the glass is officially only half full. We could choose to fill it to save jobs or schools or the Republican majority here could choose to go home with 33% cuts in many budgets. Schools at levels unimaginably low, teachers gone, classrooms crowded and Idaho kids missing something they will never get back.

Our confidence that we can pull together and correct this course has officially taken an ill turn. Some legislative leaders have resigned themselves to the least of aspirations and a willingness not to sustain state jobs but to eliminate thousands of them in the weeks ahead.

Bureaucracy

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The Department of Administration is here today and they seem nervous. Mr. Gwartney started by talking about consolidating phone services. I
have to question my ears but I'm pretty sure he said: "The
Governor has to dial 12 digits to get my office –and that's OK as long as he doesn't forget them." Not a helpful comment from the Governor's best friend given the difficult political environment the Governor faces. One has to wonder if there isn't a bit of friction there.

Gwartney's staff described to us the huge lovely technology bureaucracy they hope to create where state agencies lose their IT staff and those staff positions go to build Mike Gwartney's empire. Even our good co-chairman of JFAC expressed less than enthusiasm. "Candidly," he said, "I have a lack of confidence in the ability to deliver services –based on past experience." It seems that the Department of Finance and the Department of Insurance have not gotten what they were promised in retaining the specialized technology they need to do their work.

In case anyone has forgotten, Governor Otter & Mike Gwartney initially proposed eliminating the Department of Administration to improve the efficiency of Idaho Government. That plan was revised. The Governor and Gwartney decided instead it would be more efficient for the state not to eliminate it but to make it really huge and all powerful.

The discussion turned to creating "IEN" or the Idaho Education Network, an empire in school broad band connectivity run by, as the Governor has introduced them, his good friends at Qwest. All the little providers whose infrastructure could be improved with state funds will instead be replaced by Qwest. A few medium providers I think stay in place. So far no mention of the law suit that challenges the Department of Admin's rejecting a lower bid proposal to go with Qwest. We are told the ongoing costs of the project — the millions in state and federal dollars to Qwest — is sustainable because the state can apply for grants to cover its part. I recall the Governor telling state entities not to rely on or even apply for grants because grants often vanish, leaving programs unfunded.

But we are supposed to be excited that we can fire math teachers and not worry about the field trips kids don't get anymore because there are virtual field trips and people and programs far off on computer screens who will teach math.

Call me odd but I know I've always had students who needed to learn something in a different way, where I as a teacher had to be creative and ask questions to figure out how they think and how they might best understand something. How will a computer program know when that needs to happen? How will the screen know when a kid's eyes are filling with tears because she is confused or overwhelmed or scared because she knows she doesn't understand and someone needs to stop, take her by the hand and pick up an arm full of blocks, draw circles or draw pictures on paper to help her through it — to make sure kids don't fall behind or give up or melt down. Not all children think or learn the same and we will always need multiple ways to teach and a real person there to look the kids in the eye.

I think of our experience here with the keys to our office doors. The statehouse was opening and we were moving in but there were no keys for our office doors. We were putting files and photos and things on and in our desks and people were filing through the building day and night. Some creative high school kids even had a party somewhere in a senate room. We couldn't get Admin to send us keys. Secretaries for the ProTem and Majority leader couldn't lock their offices and files. It took forever. The Department of Admin was far away and didn't see that it mattered. Time passed and passed.

How about the part time employees, who, with a Mike Gwartney pen stroke, were required to pay hundreds of dollars more in health insurance premiums? Who was there looking in the eyes of those Idaho employees? Who was thinking about the consequences of this to those families and to the economy and state? The state is not a business with no other interest than advancing its own personal fiscal well being. We are also charged with advancing the Idaho economy, bettering the lives of Idaho families, making sure we retain and respect skilled and valued state workers.

But no, here we are today contemplating allowing Governor Otter to create this huge, impersonal and uncaring all pervasive entity, an empire of administration. Is this the future of our state? Is that Butch Otter's vision of government?

The Empty Room

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Behind the Senate chamber, in what used to be the Majority caucus room, is a room with tall windows, red striped couches and two fire places. The chairs in the room are usually empty and sometimes the fires are lit. Today I am sitting here with the warmth on my legs. It seems someone should sit here. We heard from the Department of Corrections in the budget committee this morning and I had to contemplate life in there as prisoners are packed closer, medical care fails, food budgets are cut, staff face furloughs and tensions rise. Gives a new meaning to liberty. I choose my food, go to a doctor of my choice, move from place to place, room to room. I can not imagine surviving in there. And yet too as the minutes pass while the gas fires roar, across the country, Americans do not have warm places to sit or sleep. This room sits here empty. Someone should sit in it.

From the Senate Floor to the Wild

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The senate floor is cold. The voices echo as Jenine calls the roll. Brad Little's voice is low with that lilt of humor he has. Edgar Malepeai gives our prayer, his warm, kind, strong self in every word. People talk on the phone, work on their computers as we read through the titles of bills on second reading, jump through orders of business to appointments. There are supposed to be a few fireworks here today over one appointee to the fish and game commission, I'm not sure which.

Shawn Keough gently reads the first resume. Denton Darrington is fiddling with his microphone but it's Senator Siddoway who rises to debate against the nomination. We do this, he says, to send messages to departments. I'm thinking yes, many here wish we could meld agencies to our thinking. Jeff says this is not about him ranching sheep, but about policy.

I feel a flash back to debating a Human Rights Commission appointment last year. Ruthie Johnson whose palpable distaste for gay people and those who step out of gender norms was alarming. Yet we rarely question appointments, even when it seems Commissioners fail to show up, fail to understand or work to further the goal or work of an agency.

So the gallery is filling with students, Senator Siddoway is talking about wanting to protect his sheep, his property he says, by shooting wolves, yet being allowed to kill one or two only. He has faced real loss but I wonder if wolves are at least as smart as my husky and know who has killed their pack members and if they have picked a fight with him now.

So Senator Broadsword begins her support for the Fish and Game Commissioner by saying something like that she hates wolves as much as anyone. Jeff Siddoway asks for a roll call. People move awkwardly in their seats, worried I think about not being seen as hating wolves enough. We are so far from the days of my childhood when girls hung photos of wolves on their bedroom walls, for their beauty and for their role in an ecosystem, their role in making the wild wild.

Senator Keough closes debate reminding us all that the courts have left us little room. And so the roll call begins, mostly ayes. Senator Goedde interrupts the roll to explain how he has hunted for wolves on his tag and could not shoot one, how Fish & Game even extended the season to allow more wolves to be killed and still the entire quota has not been shot.He points out that higher quotas probably would not have fixed this problem.

Just this morning I sat in JFAC listening to the Military Division present their budget and talk of a new wing coming into Idaho. I thought about a day about 20 years ago sitting in a meadow as a fighter jet flew below the canyon rim, wings tilting. This was inside the Frank Church Wilderness and as the roar faded, an odd sound rose, one voice and then another. I realized those voices, there so far from where people usually wander, were wolves, three of them through the trees at the edge of the meadow where I stood.

This was before wolves were re-introduced. These were wolves who had found their way to the quiet wild of central Idaho. That experience so rare twenty years ago, today is almost common and has brought us face to face with the very meaning of the word "wild." Do we still find anything to admire in the wolf? Are elk herds fewer or just stronger and faster? What and how much do we manage wilderness and the wildlife inside it? Outside wilderness we clearly pick and choose which and how much of each species we prefer exists. We manage the wild out of respect to ranchers like Jeff Siddoway, who in my mind should perhaps be better compensated for his loss. But where does the wild start or end? Do we ever manage the wild for the wild? What should we simply expect to face when we live at the edge of it?

Pan Back

The statehouse has been quiet today while many legislators are away for Atwell Parry's funeral. The long marble halls which connect the two underground wings seem empty, while upstairs movie cameras on mechanical arms swivel as Idaho media day shows off what is going on in on of Idaho's little known creative and often highly technological industries.

And here in the now marbled depths my inbox keeps filling with letters asking us to save Idaho Public Television. In JFAC this morning IPTV brought a second camera on line so that now in the coming weeks you can watch the expressions on our faces, the lines in our foreheads as we debate motions to cut, to fund or to de-fund every state service under the sun.

And still the wheels turn. Mike Jorgenson & John McGee's anti-immigration bills seek to make it yet harder for farms and ranches to harvest crops and do business. We debate again which disability services to make more expensive and whether or not we should mandate that insurance companies cover oral chemotherapy drugs just as they would injectable chemotherapy. We all work away on slightly narrower slices of bills — those with no cost associated. The Human and Civil Rights legislation that so many have worked on for four years is no exception. There is still a group of law makers dedicated to it. The group is more bi-partisan than ever and more diverse, fueled by success in adding sexual orientation and gender identity in similar non-discrimination measures in Pocatello, Caldwell and especially Salt Lake. 

This session will be like many others and yet not. There is no magic stimulus on the horizon galloping forward to make us giddy with relief, just sober numbers we can chose to change or choose to force the people of Idaho to live with.

Pan out to lines of people waiting for food stamps; pollution leaking into drinking water aquifers, lakes and steams that DEQ will not test for the second year in  row; school offices where administrators calculate which teacher will take the extra students as teachers and counselors are laid off; closed signs hang on offices; paint peels; state pay checks shrink. Pan back far enough and the place gets green-gray with peaks white, more eternal and seemingly impervious. We will get through this. Now is the hard part.

Helping the Thaw

JFAC, Idaho's budget committee where we sit in a room at big wooden desks and decide where the money goes, your tax dollars. Today the Department of Parks and Recreation set out plans for lay offs in their agency. I sit next to Representative Ringo who has been on the committee for I think six years. Shirley pointed out that our staff had listed how many years the fifteen employees had worked for the state. Twenty two years, 21, 19, 18, 17,16, several for 12 years… And who now doesn't now know someone with a family member losing a job as part of one of these many "government efficiency" and budget cutting proposals?

Meanwhile the Governor's office is straining to force agencies to strip back their services and staff, not just for the sake of us getting through this hard part of the economy, but permanently.

These are families, Idahoans who have children to send to college, food to buy, wages that small businesses in their communities are counting on. But we grind on and my impression is that we are nibbling around the edges. How we truly address the echoing hole in the middle of the budget is another question.

We are state leaders. If we botch this and underestimate the consequences of laying off people all across the state; if we do not inspire the confidence of all Idaho and do not help people feel secure enough that those still prospering will hire people and spend again, then this economic depression we face will go on.

Economic recovery is not a mysterious outside force that will swoop in and save us. It is the sense of renewed security  and confidence inside each of us, confidence in each other and in our leaders that spurs us collectively to participate again, to replace broken appliances and take a weekend trip in the car, to go out to eat and buy new socks or shoes. It is an end to our living so fearful that we will lose jobs, or our having saved enough or paid off enough debt that we feel better able to endure what ever is ahead. It is then, too, eventually, those who have lost jobs finding new work as those who are employed spend again at local businesses. It is all of us looking at the little businesses and families around us that we care about and helping them out any way we can.

Who We Are

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Today Peter Morril from Idaho Public Television came before JFAC to present his budget. Peter is a tall man whose voice I'm sure you'd know: gentle, warm, phenomenally reassuring. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.

Yet Morrel had to set out before us the 33% reduction in funding that the Governor has directed. He was gracious and clear in the face of Otter's proposal to, over 4 years, phase out all funding for Public Television.

He gently reminded us that, no, Public Television with its public funding, can not just start selling commercial advertisements like any TV station to make up the $1.6 Million dollars in lost funds. And will a few more weeks of telethons in this economic environment make up the funds? No.

Do we forget, if we don't ponder the question, that Idaho Public Television is the only Idaho owned TV station in the state? Might it have been awhile since we watched the award winning programs exploring our own Idaho history, our heroes, our unique issues, this place with its canyons, deserts, forests, farms and mountains — everything that is so uniquely us as Idahoans.

Listening to Peter Morrill today I felt odd pride for the station that is in essence our voice. It is indeed as Peter said, one of the few things we have in common as a state. Public Television is of by and for us as a people. What state would give that up?

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