Forrest Gump would feel at home at a town hall with Idaho legislators: Just like his box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. Through the years, Boise Weekly has sat in on several legislative town halls, watching lawmakers bring their constituents up to speed on Statehouse strategies and shenanigans. We've witnessed some ill-attended evenings, where more lawmakers than constituents showed up and, on more than a few occasions, we've watched lawmakers fight back yawns as their long day's journey at the Capitol stretched into a nighttime neighborhood forum.
Something was different Feb. 11 as District 19 legislators stood in front of a fully-engaged audience at Riverglen Junior High School on the far west edge of their district. There was even extra zip that evening as they covered a wide variety of Statehouse issues, in spite of the fact that the Democratic trio had already clocked a 12-plus hour day at the Capitol. In a matter of seconds, the constituents started peppering the lawmakers with the issues.
"I want to talk about our aging infrastructure," said one woman.
"We've got to talk about our teachers being paid an adequate wage," said another.
"I have a big problem with the way the state of Idaho has been awarding contracts," shouted a man from the back of the room.
"Wow," said Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb. "You know how some people complain about how uninformed voters are? Well, that's clearly not the case tonight. You guys obviously came prepared, and we love it."
"We" included Buckner-Webb and her Democratic District 19 colleagues in the House, Reps. Mat Erpelding and Melissa Wintrow. For the better part of two hours, the legislators spoke openly and candidly about how they spend their days—and more than a few nights—each winter.
Add the Words
Wintrow cut her legislative teeth mere days after being sworn in as a freshman member of the Idaho House. As an appointed member of the House State Affairs Committee, Wintrow became fully-entrenched in the Add the Words debate, which played out in a series of historic hearings in January that ran night-and-day before the committee voted 13-4 along party lines to defeat the bill that would have added the words "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to Idaho's human rights law.
"I can't tell you how proud I was of Melissa. Did you watch her during those hearings?" asked Buckner-Webb, to which the audience nodded its collective head.
"People who know me would tell you that I speak my mind and as a new legislator, I really wanted to make a point to tell the truth while keeping a bridge open to a colleague who may disagree with me," said Wintrow, adding that she reached out to Republican Reps. Ken Andrus and Linden B. Bateman. "I can tell you for a fact that Andrus and Bateman were really struggling by the end of that hearing."
Buckner-Webb said, "As for the possibility of an Add the Words bill resurfacing this year, well..." After a long pause, she continued. "Well, we're working on it. I asked House Speaker [Scott] Bedke if he would entertain a second hearing and he said, 'Absolutely not.' But we're re-working, re-wording and we're showing it to as many people as we can."
Erpelding said Idaho lawmakers need look no further than District 19 for the ever-evolving diversity of the Gem State.
"Just in our district, we have a mosque, a Greek Orthodox church, a Russian Orthodox church and a synagogue, all within a close proximity of one another," he said.
On Saturday, Feb. 21, proponents of Idaho House Bill 89, aka the "constitutional carry" measure, will take to the steps of the Idaho Capitol to support the bill which would allow all citizens to carry weapons anywhere in the state.
"But let me put you at ease right now. I just don't think this bill is going anywhere," Erpelding said. "I just can't imagine that there are enough legislators who would support the idea of anyone being able to carry any weapon anywhere they want. In my opinion, it's unlikely to even make it to the House floor."
The purpose of the "constitutional carry" bill, supporters said, was to give citizens the same privilege as Idaho legislators, who are not required to secure a concealed carry permit to carry a weapon.
Erpelding said, in fact, he was prepared to support a measure that would revoke that privilege from legislators.
"I want to see a law that says legislators should be carrying a permit," he said.
A different rally was happening on the steps of the Idaho Statehouse on Feb. 12: hundreds of citizens had gathered to oppose the idea of Idaho taking control of federal public lands. More than a few Idaho Republican lawmakers have floated the idea of Idaho pursuing its legal options to transfer ownership of federal lands to the state.
"I was asked to be a member of the interim committee to explore this issue," Erpelding said. "We went to Eastern Idaho and didn't hear much pushback. We went to Southern Idaho and didn't hear much there. But then, we went to Kamiah [in north-central Idaho], and we heard all of this anti-federal government talk.
"They think this is about jobs," he added. "It's not about jobs. This is posturing. If they were serious about jobs, there's a lot of other things we ought to be talking about."
A number of constituents were anxious to hear about how Idaho lawmakers might tackle an approximate $250 million transportation shortfall, hastening the deterioration of Idaho roads and bridges.
"This one is going to hurt. Even if we were to raise the gas tax by a dime and increase vehicle registrations by a whopping 50 percent, we wouldn't get close to the money we need," Erpelding said.
"But we have a bigger debate going on when it comes to transportation," he added. "Talk to somebody in rural Idaho and they want to talk about a bridge. Well, here in the Treasure Valley we have a connector that comes to a standstill every day at 4:45 p.m. We have this urban versus rural debate in so many issues."
Urban vs. Rural
Erpelding returned to the "urban vs. rural" debate a few times through the course of the town hall.
"The Boise Metro Area is a place of a lot of economic activity," he said. "I'm sure you've heard some rural legislators refer to us as the 'Great State of Ada.' Well, Ada and Canyon counties represent almost 43 to 46 percent of the population, and we're only getting bigger, yet we don't necessarily have that type of representation, at least not yet. I truly believe that the rise of the urban community is coming to Idaho. It's only a matter of time."
Wintrow added that she's ready to "fight the good fight" but remembered her mother's words of caution.
"She used to tell me to try to be the most reasonable person in the room," Wintrow said.
"Really?" asked Buckner-Webb. "My mother told me, 'Disturb the peace.'"