Bill Killen is not feeling well. The three-term Boise legislator has been struck by an illness that remains a mystery. It has him worried, his physicians puzzled and Democrats scrambling to make sure that they don't lose his District 17 seat in the Idaho House to Republicans.
With this year's Legislature still a recent memory, Boise Weekly sat down with Killen, 73, to talk about his health, the state of Idaho politics and the 2012 legislative session--probably his last.
When did you first sense that your health was deteriorating?
At the end of January, there was a bad cold going around the Legislature. I was one of the last to get it. Within a day or two, I started experiencing diarrhea but no fever and no congestion.
Did you continue to dehydrate?
It kept getting worse. I lost my appetite. I swear to God, everything I eat or drink goes right through me.
Did you miss any votes or hearings during the session?
I missed a couple of afternoons for doctor appointments.
But were you working sick?
Oh, yes. I remember one Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee meeting, I had to get up and leave. My primary-care physician eventually sent me to a gastroenterologist. I've been seeing him for about a month now. They ran all kinds of tests, and they keep telling me everything is normal. He's trying different prescriptions.
Does anything work better than the rest?
Not a damn thing. I've lost close to 40 pounds now. There are some cases where you can get a virus from a cold or the flu that can totally disrupt your digestion. That's my interpretation.
How does that manifest in your day-to-day activity?
I can't get very far from a restroom. I also have a colostomy. I had colorectal cancer 15 years ago. I also have CLL, which is a form of leukemia, but all those things I've dealt with. Nobody can figure this thing out. I walk around my house and I have to take a rest. There's no way in hell that I could campaign the way I would need to.
Let's talk about this year's legislative session. I'm sure that you heard Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter gave the Legislature an A.
At best, I would give it a C-minus.
I was pleased that they got the suicide hot line re-funded and that they added a little bit of money back to Medicaid--but the amount was a pittance [approximately $1.5 million after cutting nearly $35 million in 2011].
But the most pathetic thing that passed was the tax cut. They created an artificial surplus by low-balling the budget, and they want to give that artificial surplus away. There is absolutely no proof of a positive impact from a trickle-down effect.
Is there any way to prove that a $35 million tax cut will create any jobs?
No, and here's why. They keep saying it's a job creator. Well, there are billions of dollars sitting on the sidelines right now that aren't being spent. Why? The demand isn't there. Demand creates jobs, not extra money. When I was with Hewlett-Packard, we added employees when demand for our product exceeded our capacity. Once you make that decision, how you finance it is secondary. It's not the other way around. Just because you have money in the bank, you don't say, "I think I'll add some jobs."
Does the Legislature have an ethics problem?
Yes and the biggest problem is that they don't realize they have one. Right now, the GOP majority simply doesn't accept that there's a problem.
But it can't be unique to only Republicans.
If the Democrats were the top dogs, they would have the same kind of problem. It goes with power.
I know that you were passionate about the measure to streamline Internet sales tax.
It was a good bill. I can't believe that lawmakers would not want to collect money that is owed to the State of Idaho. God knows, we need the revenue. It's not a new tax, but it has the word "tax" in it. The Revenue and Taxation Committee is more like the revenue and anti-tax committee. We almost made it this time; we got a hearing and a vote that went 9-9. But that goddamn--pardon the expression--[Boise Republican Rep.] Julie Ellsworth. She flipped on me. In her last campaign, she said she supported a streamlined sales tax. I naively didn't follow up with her as much as I should have.
What does the Democratic Party have to do differently in Idaho?
I keep telling everyone that you don't win on issues, you win on message and you need to have a good message. People vote on emotions, not logic.
But a fair amount of people say that voters get the government they deserve.
I know I'm not getting the government that I deserve. [Boise Democratic Sen.] Elliot Werk's theory is that Republicans will go so far to the right that the limb will break and people will finally say, "enough is enough."
Do you think that limb is close to its breaking point?
Do you have a theory on where Winder's ultrasound bill came from? [Winder proposed a measure requiring Idaho women to undergo ultrasounds prior to an abortion. The bill, which passed in the Senate, stalled in the House].
That was an ALEC bill. [ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, conservative public policy lobbyists].
But ALEC had Winder carry its water on this bill.
People don't like me to use the term, but it's the Christian Taliban. They use force of law rather than force of force.
And ultimately, there was pushback on that bill.
But Winder doesn't see it. He thinks the opponents were on the fringe. I heard through the grapevine that House Republicans couldn't even get a majority from their own caucus to support the bill. They were swamped with emails, letters and calls from Republican women.
Let's presume that your health mends sooner than later. Would you consider a return to politics?
Maybe. I doubt it. You can only butt your head on the wall for so long.
Was being in the Legislature emotionally exhausting?
Frustrating but never boring.