Take a visit to Rep. Steve Smylie's classroom, you'll likely get a simple lesson on a complex process. In this lawmaker and teacher's political world, there's only one way or the highway. He tells students we can thank that one way for making politics work-or at least usually work.
"There are 50 or 100 ways to kill a bill and only one way to pass a bill," says Smylie (R-Boise 15).
As the 2005 legislative session wraps up, lawmakers have done plenty of killing. They have also scrambled to push the last of the bill survivors through both sides of the Statehouse and onto the governor's desk, to the one man who gives the final yea or nay with a stroke from one of his multitude of pens. Many, however, have little recourse but to lament the bills-often pet pieces of legislation-that have died in the Legislature's two-dozen committees or the Governor's hands.
As of press time, roughly 800 bills have survived parts of the gurgling approval process that puts American Idol to shame. Barely 170 of those bills have pushed all the way to getting signed into law.
Some Boise-area lawmakers say social programs took a particularly significant hit this session. Just a few of the civic-minded bills that were booted from the legislative island included an effort to make mental health care more accessible to state workers and extend affordable family planning services to low-income women. Another would have allowed patients receiving Medicaid to re-enter the workforce and maintain their health coverage by buying into the Medicaid program by paying a premium.
But the good news, according to Rep. Debbie Field (R-Boise 18), is that businesses can set up shop with the backing of new and improved corporate tax breaks, which spells new jobs and a more robust economy.
Field says that a number of "progressive" tax incentives aimed at expanding Micron and bringing large companies like Proctor and Gamble to the state could lead to the creation of more jobs and a stronger economy. Proponents of the number of bills that intented to prune corporate taxes took a "Reganomics" approach, backing handsome breaks to businesses that create new jobs. Go gentle on the corporate tax bill, the backers figured, and companies will spend more money on labor. Those workers in turn pump their earnings back into the economy.
The proper way to beef up the state budget and economy garnered plenty of debate this session, but some lawmakers weren't quick to OK just any tax break bill that floated their way.
"We passed an awful lot of corporate tax incentives, and I would have liked to see a lot more accountability in them," says rookie Rep. Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise 19).
LeFavour pushed throughout this session for the creation of legislation requiring companies that receive incentives or tax breaks to report how the breaks are being used or benefiting the state. Her proposal didn't make it far, but she plans to bring similar legislation before lawmakers during her sophomore legislative year. Then, LeFavour says, she will be more familiar with the movers and shakers she needs to back her plan for accountability. LeFavour says she supported some of the business incentive bills passed around the Statehouse this year, but that others come at a big price for Idahoans. In particular, she notes one break that put a $7 million dent into the already tight general fund. Considering that some social and preventative health programs costing less than $1 million were not funded because of revenue shortfalls, the $7 million hit is especially painful.
Lawmakers say that just a small chunk of that money could have easily funded some much-needed family planning services. One such measure, called the Family Planning Bill, would have created reproductive health services by using funds from both federal and state sources. The killed measure called for a budget based on 10 percent state funds and 90 percent federal funds.
"It would have really been a cost effective way to help low-income women plan their families better," says Sen. Kate Kelly (D-Boise 18).
Some lawmakers cite education as another big loser in the 2005 legislative session. They say they wished some new education bills had been killed, and that others should have come with more generous appropriations.
Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart (D-Boise 19) called Idaho schools in 2006 "grossly underfunded" and objected to the passage of the college tuition bill that gives state universities the o.k. to charge not just matriculation fees but tuition as well. Students dubbed the bill a rip-off, and Pasley-Stuart says that Idaho's founders would not be pleased that lawmakers tinkered with how higher education-or "the great equalizer"-gets its funding.
"It's a philosophical shift," she says of the bill. And according to Smylie, it's not the only way lawmakers failed students.
"The biggest failure we had was our failure to deal with a lot of education issues," Smylie says. He spreads blame across the board-to the House, the Senate, and all the lobbyists, state boards and departments in between.
"There has been a breakdown in cooperation," Smylie says, explaining that lawmakers could have boosted education funding, channeled appropriations to state-mandated remediation and even taken measures to limit disruptions in the classroom.
"We have a lot of work to do," he says. "We've accused the other side of not making progress so much that we have not made progress."