Inside Voices

School cafeteria rules suitable for Idaho politics


Even a third-grader could understand the rules:

"Use your inside voice."

"No arguing."

"Treat all people with respect."

In fact, the rules--posted on the cafeteria wall of Horizon Elementary--were crafted to maintain some degree of order at the Southwest Boise school. And they served as appropriate guidelines Feb. 12, when a group of citizens, some expressing frustration or anger, wedged into chairs designed for children, to meet with their legislative delegation representing Idaho District 17.

The legislators were working on fumes following a nearly 12-hour workday at the Statehouse. But they continued the tradition of holding open office hours each Tuesday evening to meet one-on-one with citizens. And on four evenings during the legislative sesssion, including Feb. 12, District 17 lawmakers also host rotating public forums--on this occasion, in the Horizon Elementary lunchroom.

The lawmakers had some rules of their own.

"We're going to try to be cordial," said Boise Democrat Sen. Elliot Werk. "We want to make sure everybody gets their chance to speak, but we want to be efficient as possible in answering your questions."

Werk stood alongside his District 17 colleagues from the Idaho House: Rep. Sue Chew and Rep. John Gannon, both Democrats.

Werk and Gannon plied their constituents with chocolates and tortilla chips while Chew filled a white board with topics as citizens called out issues they wanted to address: a state-run health insurance exchange, ethics, transportation, appointments to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and adequate funding for mental-health services.

But, appropriately, public education was the hot topic at the schoolhouse forum.

"Ever since I've been in Idaho--and that's close to 45 years now--the Idaho Legislature has continued to stink when it comes to funding education," said Bruce Fabbi. "It absolutely stinks."

Fabbi had the lawmakers' full attention.

"I think it's shameful," said Fabbi. "The Legislature should fund education sufficiently so that cities and school districts shouldn't have to pass supplemental levies. They shouldn't have to do that. That's the Legislature's job. I'm very angry about this."

Werk echoed Fabbi's frustration.

"The bottom line is that Idaho is dead last in student funding--dead last in the country," said Werk. "We're blessed to have such a great school district here in Boise but when you go out into the rural districts, they can barely afford paper; they're going to four-day school weeks; they're cutting back on busing services."

Gannon advised the constituents to share their concerns with legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

"You know what?" Fabbi asked rhetorically. "Republicans don't want to educate our kids because they probably want a cheap labor force. You tell them it's shameful."

Fabbi's anger only grew as Chew briefed the gathering on what had happened the previous day: The Senate Education Committee introduced 14 education bills, all without debate or discussion.

"Now, usually, someone presents each bill before a committee and lawmakers are afforded the opportunity to ask about the fiscal or structural impact of each bill," said Chew. "But the chairman decided to just take them all with no discussion."

On Feb. 11, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, a Coeur d'Alene Republican, asked for unanimous consent on the stack of 14 measures, and with no objection, the bills were fast-tracked to full committee hearings.

Up next, Werk offered what he called "inside information" on the political mechanics of committee chairmanships at the Statehouse.

"The committee chair is the king or queen," said Werk. "And on some days, you may get 500 people signed up on one side of an issue and only 35 people on the other side, yet the chairman decides to go pro-con, pro-con, pro-con."

Werk said one egregious example occurred during a recent session of Goedde's Senate Education Committee.

"Sage Charter School took the day off, rounded everybody up and came down to the education committee room at 6 a.m. and signed up for the first 30 spots," said Werk. "And then there was one student after another after another, griping about how charter schools weren't getting enough money. Does that represent the actual public? No, and we all know that. But that's the chairman's prerogative."

Lois Morgan said she learned firsthand about what she called the "inequity" when she traveled to the Statehouse to testify before a legislative committee.

"I felt like I was in Russia, where everything was rigged," said Morgan. "I honestly didn't feel like I was in America, where things are supposed to be equal. The chairman's pet project was allowed to do all of the testifying. What can we do about that?"

Werk conceded to Morgan that the Legislature's rules aren't going to change anytime soon, adding that another Republican chair had a peculiar habit.

"I sit on the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee," he said. "[Huston Republican] Sen. Patti Anne Lodge is the chair of that committee, and she doesn't like to broadcast the committee hearing over the Internet. She turns it off, so that you can only hear the meeting in that room. I don't like that. But again, it's her prerogative. Please understand that the chair is all-powerful."

Following two hours of engagement, Chew, Gannon and Werk thanked their constituents for expressing their concerns, promising to take them back to the Statehouse.

Now, if only everyone at the Capitol could abide by those rules posted at the Horizon Elementary cafeteria.