Never Personal

This is the annual struggle: not taking the battle personally. For each of us when we must oppose a bill we know we may offend the sponsors. Even though each of us is doing our best to serve democracy, struggling to represent different constituencies, sometimes I know it feels personal. What is hard is not to inpugn the intent of the sponsors. That is hard. I try to focus on the policy but there are times that criticism can stray to something that feels like a question of motivation. This year has been hard for all of us because the lines are drawn with so much at stake and so much pressure because of the magnitude of the impact of the bills. I recognize the pressures on others. My words are far more mild than those I get in letters every day. But I do have a duty to be sure my own words are not personal. This is, for me, what makes a blog often incompatible with policy making. I try to represent the experience here. But to be honest about how I feel sometimes puts my ability to do this work and to pass policy at risk. I've blogged little this year because of that. The balance is hard. I apologize and wish I walked that delicate line better.

Unthinkable

There come moments when, as busy as I am this year, the absurdity of this place strikes me and I want to say something, I want to sit down and tap my frustration into this computer. Today is the worst of those.

Last night the co-chairs of the budget committee sent out letters to legislators saying that, as hard as the budget cuts last year were;

as hard as looking at intentionally increaseing class sizes to fund on line courses and lap tops has been;

as hard as contemplating cutting services to seniors and people with disabilities, contemplating risking their independence in their homes has been;

as hard as decimating state jobs and family incomes has been — we've go to to cut more. Like 5% more.

That's like another $80 million out of public schools. That's like laying off the 770 teachers Luna is already plotting to eliminate but not even pretending to replace them with on line courses & laptops — just cramming kids into classrooms with no new text books, no new desks, no lab equipment and just saying, good luck, we don't want to look bad to tea party voters who want government to vanish. So good luck.

Already we struggle knowing people are being denied mental health and substance abuse treatment and now we are contemplating making others with disabilities stay in their homes alone without help — without the services some might need to go to work or others might need to avoid ending up back in state hospitals.

And dry-eyed Maxine Bell and Dean Cameron say our only job is to cut more.

Where is the leadeship? Where is the vision that in past years brought our state through crisis without costing lives or risking the future of our children? Where is that sense of patriotism that pulls us together and has great leaders asking us to step forward and share the burden when there's pain to be had?

No, we are in a time of the most unthinkable of low aspirations. We will make children and the most vunerablle pay it all rather than giving up something of ourselves, paying a bit more sales tax or asking our well-to-do neighbors to join us in payng a bit more through the income tax. No, we will just cut, calling the pain we inflict "the new normal" as if there were no other option in the world.

 

Leadership in Flux

Legislative Council has assembled around the big wooden table in the Senate Republican Caucus room in the top of the statehouse. The showing is sparse. Missing are the members leaving us whose terms end a month from now. In December we will be sworn in again and joined by six new senators and twelve newly elected house members. That is not unprecedented change. Compared to other states, Idaho simply stayed its red self. Interestingly we stand now at the same numbers we had six years ago when I was first elected to the house.

Legislative Council is an ongoing committee made up of Democratic and Republican leadership plus members elected by their caucus to serve in overseeing policy, procedure and the general workings of both houses. We discuss everything from whether the dining room will welcome the public, to whether committee secretaries will be detailed or vague in writing up the minutes of legislative committee meetings.

This is my fourth year on Legislative Council. I've looked around in the past and realized that the committee has been used at times as a consolation prize for members not elected to leadership positions in their respective caucuses.

And it's that time again. Leadership elections. Speaker in the House, Pro-Tem in the Senate, in both houses a Majority Leader, Assistant Majority Leader, Caucus Chair, Minority Leader, Assistant Minority Leader & Minority Caucus Chair.

Already the Pro Tem is telling people to save Friday morning after our one day December organizational session and swearing in just in case leadership races get drawn out. This year with the surge of far right or tea party Republicans one can expect some leadership challenges within the two Republican Caucuses. Never mind that, in the House, Majority Leader Mike Moyle is rumored to be taking on Speaker Denny.

Last time we had a serious Speaker's race, after Bruce Newcomb retired as Speaker of the House, committee chairships changed, new people were given JFAC seats and the tone and feel of the legislature turned from a moderate and congenial place to an often far more difficult and contentious one.

I am holding my breath about the Senate. Some say that with the final numbers there will be enough relative moderates to keep the Senate from radical change.

This year, for Democrats, members of leadership retired in both the House and Senate. New leaders will be elected from among those not serving on the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee. In the Senate in our tiny seven member Democratic caucus with two JFAC members and three leadership positions, our choices are a bit less wide ranging than in the House. We have some pretty wide ranging personalities though.

Sunday, across the state, we legislators will pack our bags for the Northern Idaho Legislative Tour which always follows on the heels of the election. We will travel and mingle for three days getting to know new members and discussing legislative ideas. Both parties will hold caucuses to begin to brooch the topic of leadership races. We will know then who will run and begin to contemplate the temperaments, the strengths, weaknesses and personalities that will shape our lives and policy in the next two sessions and possibly in many more to come.

Gavel Will Fall

The Senate floor is warm and, with all the hours we've spent here now, the place seems somewhat homey and a bit less like working in a museum. The brads on the chairs have dug notches into the wood desk and the pages have had to pull the red curtains back to expose hidden vents so we have more air. We are settling again into the place, good or bad, just as we are about to leave for real for this legislative session, this election cycle.

We are going into the amending order to change some bills, then out to pass the Department of Administration's budget. Why we are waiting I can only imagine. Perhaps someone is hoping to put a bit of fear of god in Mike Gwartney. I don't know. The budget has some pretty nifty strings in it. It directs him to stop cutting state employee benefits and shoving the savings into the $100 million or so in reserves he is now sitting on. Still the budget gives out the whole $3 million to the Idaho Education Network scandal mess. While we have set up new legislative elements to the oversight, depending on who those individuals are it may or may not simply allow Qwest to proceed in spending dollars they were inappropriately granted as they were neither the lowest nor the best graded bid in the contract to build the high tech network for Idaho public schools.

But we are winding down, debating more law suits in the endless stream of those we are inviting, taking up and simply subjecting ourselves to by passing glaringly poorly drafted legislation. I would wager we might set a record for money spent on law suits this coming year, at the same time we will not give $150,000 to pay for life-saving medications for people with Cystic Fibrosis, some of whom will be hospitalized. Some could face life threatening consequences or even die. But this legislature has its priorities. Law suits. Defending and Initiating law suits. Lawyers. Huge legal fees.

Out With a Hiss

The Idaho legislature is about to evaporate into thin air. Monday, the 105 of us likely will vanish with a lingering anti-climatic hiss… having cobbled together some fiction of a budget, some duct tape and pine pitch plan to make the nightmares we are brewing stay quiet until after the elections. 

I do not recall a session this short in my six years in the legislature. The primary election is rolling toward us. May 25. Like many of my colleagues, I face a tea party opponent this year, but mine I do not face until November.

With the many May primaries, the Republican party will start to consume itself as soon as the gavel falls. Moderate Republicans face the worst of it and seem frustrated. Some have suggested that if it gets much meaner they will be joining us on the "D" side. If enough came over, and the House or Senate were then fairly evenly split, they'd have a good chance at more power and at not being marginalized as they are by more conservative leadership. But all these are just thoughts said many times before over the years. How long does it take to grow few up? I don't know. If Democrats continue to bash Walt Minnick I suspect our moderate friends will be highly disinclined to feel welcome in our party. If progressive people want more power over policy, over health issues, the environment, education and human rights, I know it is unpopular to say, but we will have to be more accepting of a wider range of political perspectives. We will have to learn to hold on to the gains and the points of common ground without dividing ourselves over the things about which we don't agree.

Finding My Way in the Senate

Yesterday's debate on the Public Schools budget was the perfect day to feel the true character of the Senate. Dean Cameron in carrying the bill on the floor spoke kindly of the process and the participants. Before I debated against the bill, I complemented the process and the sponsor as well as the hard work and long hours that went into the very budget which I was soon to say was a poor choice and simply was not the best we could do.

Republicans whose daughters and wives and relatives are teachers debated about how hard teachers work and how they will just work harder with less in the year ahead, how they are not in teaching for the money. In Senator Cameron's closing he thanked the minority, said kind things about those who debated against the $128 million cut to schools and then he went on to say how lucky we are and how much worse things are in other states.

The Senate is about civility, about decorum. We say kind things before going to battle, draw a flower and a sword at the same time.

Even while we Democrats made a motion to change the bill, to send it to the 14th order to take out the part that dismantles teacher's security, their contracts, the one thing that keeps politics out of the classroom — even while we debated this cruel language we were kind. Edgar Malepeai debated eloquently that the language on contracts cut to the very soul of teachers. His tone was even, strong and yet kind.

There is a sum of meaning, even said kindly, that implies that we Democrats feel that Republicans had a choice whether or not to cut this deep… and that they choose the easy path, choose not to challenge the house so that they could go home soon, all because it is an election year.

We Democrats asked the Senate to join us in adding $35 million back into the budget from the grocery credit, election consolidation and school facilities fund. But instead they chose to pass the bill intact, cutting teachers, growing class sizes, eliminating tutoring, saying good bye to crisis counselors, hours of
paid work, programs that help struggling students, academic materials,
text books, all the tools that we try to use to make sure kids
succeed…

After debate, Dean Cameron came over and gave me a hug, for that is his character, and that is the character of the Senate. After session yesterday we went and played pool together, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans. You have to spend time here together outside the highly charged environment of policy. That is what makes it all work, reminding ourselves that regardless of the blades hidden inside the cordial debate, we are human. I've long known that.

Hidden Agendas

Jfac-co-chairs
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.

Bureaucracy

2010stuffed-otter-sm

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?

Ransom

Some days are better than others. Today was a better day. Theresa Luna came to the Senate Commerce Committee to present the "group insurance" rules of Mike Gwartney's Department of Administration. Someone had foolishly mixed part time state employee health benefits issues in with the rules dealing with the effects of Otter's cutting/privatizing state retiree benefits last year. 

So the committee was suspicious. The media came. We asked questions:

1) I asked whether having even a small percentage of part time employees fall off of state health insurance could cause the state to lose all of its projected budget savings — because, if even a tiny percentage of the newly uninsured part time employees faced cancer and spent every resource they had thus ending up on the county indigent fund, then the state would have to pay for their health care anyway — not just $200 more in insurance premiums — but the medical bills themselves — potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per person.

ANSWER: that kind of consequence had not been calculated into the fiscal impact.

2) Senator Cameron asked if, as Ms. Luna told us, the rule we had before us today was NOT Director Gwartney's rule dealing with the roughly $200 increase in premiums for part time state employees — then where was that rule and when would we hear it?

ANSWER: there will be no rule. Director Gwartney feels he has the authority to make major changes in the benefits of over 2500 state employees without any form of approval from the legislature.

Needless to say Director Gwartney has not made himself popular with the legislature and his department telling legislators to mind their own beeswax did not go over well. Senator Stegner pondered whether our holding the rule in committee might spur the Director to come in and explain himself to us.

Motions were made and seconded and indeed we held the set of rules ransom. We will consider passing them only after the Director has shown us where the authority lies for him to singlehandedly cut part time employee benefits in this way. I look forward to it.

These rules and this issue could have passed quietly over this session while men and women around the state sat over kitchen tables calculating whether the wages their part time jobs earn would pay for their benefits. Many couples have lost private sector jobs and the benefits the state employee in the family has been given have become a life line. Men and Women grappling with cancer like Senator Stennett and probably Representatives Collins and Marriot surely hold their breath knowing that the health care they get is a thin line between them and disaster.

And yet Director Gwartney with the stroke of a pen takes these things away.

He robs families of policies established by a legislature that knows the value of paying benefits to make palatable the lesser wages of part time work. To me it seems more than anything not about the budget but about cruelty, about demonizing government, most of all demonizing sensible government that recognizes we live in a world that increasingly leaves people vulnerable, teetering at the edge of ruin because they have no insurance, no access to care that won't bankrupt them should they ever get seriously ill.

Today was a good day and perhaps other good days will come when lawmakers who have grow tired of unilateral action will finally use the law to reign in the man with the flowing white hair.

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