Ode to the Senate

O Idaho Senate with your flourishes
Your contemplative strength
How the House has teeth so much sharper

O Senate with your kind men and tough women
You strut as if these endings were your making
Why do you own acts so cruel?

For in your faces lies a sadness, in your eyes aquifers rise
The blood of a million and a half lives hangs around you
Will you listen to its cry?

O Senate your demons are the sly ones
Men with voices more self righteous than mine

My death here will not come from honored stabbing
But from from friendly fire
From cold flesh cut to keep me small

O Senate in your back-hall offices the lobbyists tarry
They covet your small numbers
Your love of fine wine and red meat

Let none come here to lead you into darkness
Your voice is that of orphans
Their quest is yours to represent

As a body of the legislature, Senate you demur to Gwartney and his Governor too often
The scent of moneyed scandals rise and yet you dally
Steel your bones, we've battles yet to fight

Your skin pales at my words, still you compliment my passion
I could stay to study at your gleaming heels
But my tolerance for pain fades with age

Aye, in your finance committee lie secret angels
In your gruff leaders hide impish saints
Faces of stone, you weep when the hero falters

Nay, I'd thought to leave but have grown fond now
Thorn in your steely side, such a view you offer
The space you give, the lines you've begged me learn

Should I miss the house? Yes
I shall wander East and visit
Gaze fondly at their casual dance and return

I'll run here to your pools of formal kindness
The body of thirty-five parts which together spin a brilliant, hard and haunted heart.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Harder to Find

Night time. Senators leave in groups, out through the bright wings into the streets. Thus begins the many weeks of legislative dinners and receptions.

I am in my office. This is novel. I have never had an office before. I always loved working on the floor. I loved having others around me working at their desks. We mixed, joked, got beyond the hard politics.

In the Senate we all have offices now and, if you know where these are, you can find us there. It could be a good thing. But I worry a bit that it will isolate us more, that the three Senate office areas down here behind the committee rooms keep us a bit segregated.

The 70 house members have cubicles, not offices, also on the "garden level" off their underground wing. Some are lovely, others are just that, temporary divided cubicles in a virtually windowless back room. For this reason, and because I'm sure many still like the camaraderie of working next to each other on the floor, I suspect a good set of Representatives will still work at their rows of desks in the chamber. I don't know if this is true of the House but the Senate floor is cold now and though the historic red curtains give it a warmer feel, compared to the old courthouse it seems so huge, tall and formal. My office is not quite as beautiful but far more homey to work in. In fact, since I do not have a window, I brought a disco ball and it throws wonderful patterns of light on the walls and ceiling in the low lit room.

I will hold my first office hours Friday the 15th, 1 pm to 3 pm. In two weeks I'll start earlier so people can visit me on their lunch hour. We'll see how it works. My plan is for every other Friday and then a few Tuesdays as well 4 to 6 so people can come after work. You will be able to go to my new web site soon and see a schedule.

Having an office hopefully means I have a place where people will visit and feel comfortable. I have hot tea and lots of chairs. Like others I'm settling in to this space a bit. Four of us Democrats are tucked away behind double doors at the base of the capitol's 8th Street West underground wing. Don't give up in looking for us. All the Committee Chairs and a few others are in suites behind the row of smaller committee rooms. You will find the door at the base of the short set of stairs that leads back into the old capitol and the new visitors center.

At the top of that short set of stairs, near the old vaults where we stowed the lobbyists away, you will find two more sets of Senator's offices. Don't be intimidated, we are back in these areas, just a little bit harder to find.

Giving it Back

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I've wandered the Capitol under construction with tour groups of legislators when it was dark, dusty and lifeless. Then slowly as we were allowed in, I wandered as the echoing building began to grow inhabitants, offices here and there had staffers, legislative colleagues would appear now and then in an empty chamber wide eyed and wandering too.

While I generally don't seek them out, I've been to monuments, to cathedrals, castles, the Taj Mahal; huge human crafted places, large, beautiful or strange enough to inspire awe. I will say that our State Capitol rises to that plane. Its beauty, size, it splendor has reached a level it may not have reached before. Perhaps I say this because the absence has made our hearts grow more fond of its roomy beauty; or perhaps the walls take the eye by surprise because no one builds things from marble anymore; perhaps because the 70s paneling is gone and the wear and tear and funk I loved perfectly well before have vanished. Now it all shines, not just literally, because it does that too, but one can't help but feel how much thought and labor has poured into the place; how many hours of so many skilled hands have worked there in the dark and through these summers and winters.

It has been gone. The building fenced and ugly like a wreck in the middle of our city for I think two and a half years. Over $100 million dollars poured into it, into wages and materials and minds for their problem solving and invention. I did not vote for the wings or, because the bill contained both, I did not vote to fix up the Capitol. But it is done and in my mind it is enough beyond belief that I ask you to go take a look.

The money that could have put school children in class rooms instead of trailers is is gone and it will be well spent if this building returns to those who really own it. The people of Idaho. If you all step inside and look up, if you climb the stairs, explore the corridors, step to microphones in the new hearing rooms, then it will be money well spent. If generations of Idahoans step in the building and find awe and pride, maybe then those who study now without current text books or run science experiments without proper equipment, maybe they, when grown, will forgive us. Maybe they will not think ill of us because we built something for them too– not just a stone shrine to house our own lawmaker's vanity.

Last night and today the building has warmed with life and people. I hope for much more of that. I hope that Idaho might feel it has its building back, that it is yours, not ours, that it is a place we as law makers can aspire to be worthy of in our life times and for the three months we stay here borrowing the air, the beauty and the space to write your budgets and laws.

Short Days

Boise has been thick in fog. Days are short and the session begins again soon. January 11th. Like many legislators, I take short trips to Legislative services to draft bills. I visit on the phone or after meetings with Republican colleagues. I contemplate strategy, wording, policy, politics. Sometimes there is too much debate about politics rather than about policy and law makers don't do things they should/could/want to because of what their party would do or what they think voters might think. But now I'm trying to hold onto what is possible. I'm watching the clock tick forward toward that day when the gavel again falls and I'm getting ready. I'm thinking about how to thrive in the more somber house, the Senate, and remembering how different every session is from the ones before. There is just no telling. It never feels the same. Like different worlds one year to the next. One tune taps its way through my lips and toes today. The whistled part of the song at the end of The Life of Brian. When they are all hung up on crosses they whistle and sing that tune… "Always look on the bright side of life… always look on the bright side of life…"

A Brightening

The sun was out this morning and Carol washed a mountain of spinach while I planted chili plants and put up a trellis for the peas. The Senate started a good half hour late as has often been the habit this past month of waiting, redoing bills and battling back and forth between the the Governor and House and Senate Republicans. But here in the building, faces are not as somber, tense exchanges are forgotten. Grey haired men are back to telling stories. Reporters roam the halls and stairs expectantly.

We passed two transportation funding bills this morning, neither of which was substantial, one of which was pie in the sky, amusing. It would entice trucking companies to register here in Idaho. I stood and presented my final two appropriations bills. I see them flying through the brown granite halls to the House as a sort of trial test balloon. We are hopeful but there is a slightly tentative flavor to the hope. There have been close deals or trials with a whole array of transportation funding and education gutting legislation, almost all of which was killed in one body or another.

We are close to going home. We think.

The rain leaves fields safe from drought. We all know that soon it will dry and there will be pipe to move, fields to irrigate. We are close now. Really. We think.

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