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Legislature gets a failing grade at midterms

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A Democrat in disguise in the Idaho House of Representatives, Rep. Tom Trail (R-Moscow), is sponsoring HCR32, one of his several underdog-protection measures. This one would create Bullying Awareness Week in public schools, which legislators in the House Education committee have agreed is a step in the right direction. One of HCR32's clauses reads: "WHEREAS, bullying may consist of physical incidents of hitting, kicking, or choking, verbal threats, teasing and taunting, or systematic exclusion from activities."

The exquisite irony of the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature's support for an anti-bullying measure is too good to pass up.

Republicans in the Legislature are acting like bullies then make it look like your fault. Their underhanded tyranny this session has targeted the poor, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, schoolchildren, farmworkers and Medicaid recipients. They're even bullying Idaho's beautiful wild wolves.

In the Statehouse, their direct target is Democrats, who are getting the crap beat out of them by Republicans. But the real losers are the citizens of Idaho.

The effect of relentless bullying is that victims become demoralized--and paralyzed. Being a very small minority party isn't easy, but Democrats, perhaps exhausted by their efforts going nowhere, haven't put forth much legislation this session. Republicans propose new laws in heaps and piles, knowing they can drop some to win others. Democrats have a slim file folder containing only bills that seem to have a good chance.

It's a strategy that isn't working.

Republicans have offered several hundred bills this session, with emphasis on changing agricultural laws and practices to give farmers advantages; expanding the rights of law enforcement; and breaking down the separation of church and state.

Distinctly Christian prayers are said before each day's session. Nobody even questions this anymore, but it's bullying nonetheless.

Of course, they've passed a constitutional amendment singling out gay and lesbian people as second-class citizens, using the old slippery-slope political arguments that have always succeeded in scaring voters into knee-jerk agreements, and setting up November's election voter turnout. There's nothing like a moral call-to-arms to get voters to the polls.

They even tried to get the taxpayers to foot the bill to challenge the constitutionality of an amendment that we approved in a statewide vote--the Indian gaming amendment--but Indians had a plan and a brilliant lobbyist who pulled off an overthrow of that idea. For once, the bullies were left steaming in the schoolyard.

When Trail and Rep. Shirley Ringo (D-Moscow) worked on legislation that would have increased Idaho's minimum wage to $6.15 an hour, it got shelved by Republican leadership, who said it would be "too political this year." That means Republican constituents who own small businesses would be ticked off if it passed, and might not vote for the good old boys.

But House Democrats haven't taken up the cause by introducing minimum-wage legislation of their own. Even without a hope of passing, it's a campaign issue that could be used to illustrate the Legislature's indifference to the working poor.

Rep. Margaret Henbest (D-Boise) did, however, counteract with a proposal to use some of the budget surplus to subsidize energy bills for low-income Idahoans, but the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee (JFAC) pulled off some ugly election-year bullying. After Henbest introduced her motion, they countered with one of their own that allocated a lower dollar amount. They removed her name from the bill, turned it into a Republican proposal, and kept them from having to vote against energy assistance.

Republicans have put their names to some admirable legislation aimed at controlling the sale of pseudoephedrine (a key ingredient in making methamphetamine), several good anti-sex-abuse measures, a bill supporting the state's Suicide Prevention Plan and an anti-dogfighting bill. They also killed a frightening proposal to allow semi-trailer trucks to drive 75 mph on Idaho highways.

Democrats are seeing success with some government ethics proposals and a school nutrition improvement measure.

Of the 54 bills on the House Calendar as of Monday, 51 are sponsored by Republicans and three by Democrats. That number reflects the measures that have passed through House committees and made it to the floor for eventual vote. The number doesn't count the ones killed in committee, which would show that the ratio is not nearly that lopsided. It points to the power of the majority to control what issues get anywhere.

Nobody's gotten anywhere with solving the school construction crisis. Even a mandate from the Idaho Supreme Court last September that the Legislature do so hasn't brought forth a solution. Governor Kempthorne's budget allocated just $4.5 million to school buildings, and the need is more than 10 times greater. Both Democrats and Republicans have proposals in front of House State Affairs which could draw attention this week.

Vice-President Hubert Humphrey said, "It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

By those standards, this session of the Idaho Legislature gets a failing grade at midterm. If they turn in some unfinished assignments with an eye toward improving the lives of the least of us, there's a chance to finish with a passing grade.

But just barely.