A trio of hardy Democratic state legislators came north last week, bringing tales from the bubbling legislative cauldrons of Boise to gatherings of Democrats eager to hear the news and maybe a little inside dirt.
At the Coeur d'Alene meeting, most of the talk revolved around issues of public education and public schools, which are the most important recipients of state tax dollars.
As the confab was winding down, a question was asked about funding for the Arts Commission. Local arts patrons and Democrats around the state had been mystified, mortified and even angry upon hearing that Democrats had voted against funding the arts. How could arts supporters be betrayed so seriously by their own kind?
The story was explained by our three legislators, who were fresh from the painful scene that found Democrats voting "No" on the appropriation bill for the state Arts Commission, an institution dear to each of their hearts. With eight Democrats voting against a $1.95 million appropriation, along with 28 Tea Party Republicans, the budget for the arts, as recommended by the all-powerful Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, was dead.
The explanation was short and simple: Democrats in the House were making a statement.
While Democrats are definitely in the minority, their votes are needed to keep the Idaho ship of state from foundering on Tea Party rocks. Or maybe I should say, the ship of state has a real anchor of elected Tea Party conservatives in the House of Representatives, who make up close to half of the Republican caucus. Several of these conservatives habitually push the "No" button when spending bills come up, even though funding state government is the prime responsibility of the legislature. Rep. Kathy Sims (R-Coeur d'Alene) rarely votes yes.
By their "nay" votes on this routine budget bill, Democratic legislators were telegraphing their frustration at being taken for granted by the majority party leaders who run the legislative show. Democratic legislators wonder why they should help keep Idaho's state business perking along when Republican committee chairmen are unwilling to allot committee time for hearing Democratic legislators' bills. They chafe under the double standard that sends Democratic legislation to the back of the bus, and the free ride Tea Partiers are getting despite their naysaying ways.
Rest assured — the annual budget for the Idaho Commission on the Arts should suffer no harm from the temporary delay. The defeated bill has been sent back to JFAC, which will prepare a revised document. A little mischief may be attempted, but we can hope for smooth sailing for the arts budget by sine die.
Working together, the House and Senate Democrats have prepared an outline of their shared legislative goals, which has been printed under the title "Creating Opportunity — A Balanced Plan for Idaho's Future." To implement the plan, Democratic legislators submitted a roster of personal bills, including a proposed tuition account to stabilize student debts; creation of a universal service broadband fund; a bill to raise the minimum wage; a bill to create a sales tax review commission; a measure to establish permanent absentee voting; another to permit online voter registration; and a proposal to fill the Medicaid gap for the 78,000 Idahoans who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford health insurance. Many of these items are designed to help Idahoans thrive.
Nonetheless, all but two of the Democratic measures are still parked in the House Ways and Means Committee, where bills are sent to die. Healthy Idaho Senate Bills 1204 and 1205 lie neglected in the Senate Health and Welfare chairman's desk drawer. I applaud the feisty Democrats' attempts to pull these bills from committee.
In addition to having their bills shut out of committee hearings, Democrats are expected to sit through committee hours that are wasted on wild and crazy bills that have little merit and hopefully no future. An exceptionally craw-choking bill was presented by Rep. Eric Redman (R-Athol) aimed at protecting Idaho's citizens from the passage of a foreign law, especially Islamic Sharia law. Just how significant a threat to Idaho is that?
Meanwhile, in the remaining days of this year's session in Boise, two bills have been submitted by 23 Republican representatives who make up the ultraconservative caucus, relating to the transfer of federal lands in Idaho to the state.
So, citizens, take note: We will not have a chance to raise the minimum wage in Idaho this session. In fact, local governments are being told that they no longer have the authority to pass local ordinances about such matters at all. House Bill 463, taking away city or county ordinances pertaining to minimum wages, passed handily on a strictly party-line vote. So much for that old conservative preference for local control.
And no consideration will be made of the problems Idaho college students are having with their student loans. Ways to make voting easier and more efficient will not be considered. Review of unfair and outdated sales tax exemptions will continue to be overlooked. But pie-in-the-sky legislation about turning federal lands over to the state? Of course that's being given time, as well as those pressing concerns over Sharia law.
There must be a better way to run a railroad — or steer a state.♦