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Black-Tie Three-Ring Circus

Taxation, education and life in the legislative zoo


In the Idaho Legislature, The People's business is conducted in surprisingly thoughtful ways. It's a big change from campaigning, which can yoink your brain out your ears.

It can also be mind-numbing, illogical and ponderous. While the rest of us are instant-messaging and downloading Podcasts to listen to during a workout before tonight's speed-dating party, the pace, habits, rules and procedures of the Capitol are as deliberate and formal as they always have been. Suits, ties and pantyhose are worn, titles are used, and thank-you-note manners are the norm. The way new laws are made has built-in filters to slow down the tempo. Committee meetings and repeated "readings" of a bill on different days make time for everyone to think and talk things over before a vote is taken. Nobody can say, "Shoot, I accidentally spent $10 million on a cashmere pool cover for the prison," because the process won't let them.

Do you remember that high school government class about "eminent domain" when you sneaked a game of hangman with the guy in front of you? Well, you shouldna, because in a House Resources and Conservation committee meeting, which lasted an excruciating three hours, you really had to know your eminent domain. This year, we may get new state laws to keep local governments from being able to seize tracts of land when it's deemed "in the public interest," and developers don't want any new laws. There's something about private property rights that makes Idahoans particularly shirty, so there may be a real stink.

Go see Mr. Carlton at Boise High if you need a brush-up on any of this stuff.

A bill calling for 3 percent pay raises for state employees passed the Senate unanimously, and the House Monday by a vote of 60 to 2, which begs the question: which two? Reps. Lenore Barrett (R-Challis), and JoAn Wood (R-Rigby) couldn't be reached for comment.

In the debate over high-school curriculum redesign, last week's excitement was headlined, One house member can torment state teens. The State Board of Education's plan to add more math and science classes isn't proposed as a bill, it's written as rules. It can't be changed or amended, only accepted or rejected. It was a 9 to 9 tie in House Education and rejected 5 to 4 by the Senate Education Committee. Voting "No" were Democrats Mike Burkett of Boise, Bannock County's Bert Marley, and three Republican senators from parts north. "Yes" votes included Boise Republican John Andreason. But the House Ed Committee can revive the issue by calling another meeting, and it takes only one member to break the tie and profoundly affect the school curriculum.

Committee member Jana Kemp (R-Boise) voted no the first time and likely will again. "We were asked to vote only on the rules before us, but there were some issues and word changes that were not reflected in the public meetings that were held. I don't believe in voting on anything without enough information."

Marley, who is running for state superintendent of schools, has serious questions about the way the State Board of Ed. designed the rules and whether they solve any problems. "The board is a little out of touch--sometimes it seems they have their own agenda and ignore public input." He said that research supports the idea that kids' levels of maturity make a big difference in their ability to learn math, and "throwing more classes in isn't necessarily the answer.

"We should raise standards, not seat time," he said.

Property tax relief and reform will use up a lot of legislators' time and patience this session, especially after last summer's 12 public hearings across the state left tax committee members without a clear direction. Last week there were four discussion meetings in House Revenue and Taxation, and a dozen bills were introduced while herds of dark-suited lobbyists from local governments and business groups lurked around the halls. The issue could get really sticky, because Governor Kempthorne won't approve using any of the $200 million surplus for tax relief. To find the money, other taxes may have to be raised, and whoever gets that burden will surely bring a mob of other like-minded folks to the Statehouse.

The Senate Democrats have introduced an issue dear to their hearts--campaign finance reform and fair elections--with SB1290. The bill would create the Idaho Fair Elections Act Trust Fund, which would finance the campaigns of any candidate who chooses to forgo corporate contributions. It sounds radical, but Maine, Arizona and Connecticut already have similar programs in place. Roger Sherman of United Vision for Idaho is shepherding the proposed law for the third year in a row and is seeking Republican sponsors, but he's not holding his breath. "If the current system is working for them, they don't feel like rocking the boat," he said.

Sen. David Langhorst (D-Boise) has his eyes on this issue, saying, "The Fair Elections Bill is a way to tell the people that there is a way to run clean elections, without special-interest money. It would be awesome if we could spend more time listening to constituents and talking about real issues, instead of so much time raising money,"

And finally, this year's version of an anti-gay-marriage amendment was introduced in House State Affairs this week by Rep. Lawerence Denney (R-Midvale) and the vote was 11 to 4 to print it. Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart (D-Boise), called for a roll call vote which revealed the yeas and nays. (No public testimony was taken at this early stage.) Voting "no" were Reps. Janet Miller (R-Boise), Robert Ring (R-Caldwell), Elaine Smith (D-Pocatello), and Anne Pasley-Stuart (D-Boise). Miller said, "This is an issue we don't need to spend time on when there are more urgent matters at hand. We need to put our time into education, taxes, health care, prison overcrowding and more."