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Laid off legislators

Citizen lawmakers face joblessness


Standing awkwardly in front of Boise's elite Capitol press corps as reporters munched on $12 sandwiches and sipped iced tea, Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes asked a telling rhetorical question: "Are my senators stable?"

He was talking about the nationwide recession that hit Idaho in the last four months, taking a huge chunk of cash out of the state's coffers.

Geddes, of Soda Springs, said he worries about a handful of state senators weathering this financial crisis themselves.

"Certainly, we have to comply with the same programs and laws that we pass," Geddes said. "We should be taking a lot of advice from you folks."

We're not sure that last statement was aimed at us, the elite Capitol press corps. But a subset of Idaho's citizen Legislature is certainly feeling the same economic squeeze that average Idahoans are feeling.

"I'm looking for jobs and doing my taxes," said House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts.

Roberts owns a construction and excavation business in Valley County, where construction has come to a near standstill. His wife works four days a week at a pancake house in McCall.

Roberts said winter is a slow period anyway—Idaho's Legislature has always met in the winter months when guys who work outdoors are less busy—but that when the snow melts, he'll seek work far and wide.

One of lawmakers' first acts of this session was to unanimously reject a $905 pay hike recommended by a citizen committee, a vote that cost some more than others. Roberts had also suggested over the summer that legislators be reimbursed for up to $1,000 of travel expenses within their districts during the interim session, an idea that was also rejected this year.

Legislators make $16,116 a year, a salary that some rely on more and more.

"I really have an understanding of what average Idahoans are going through right now," said Boise Democratic Rep. Branden Durst, who was laid off from his job at a research firm in December.

Durst said the $900 pay hike would not have paid the bills anyway. He thinks legislators need to make $40,000 a year without a per diem to make serving more realistic for young people and for working-class folks.

"There's a reason our Legislature looks the way it does," said Durst, who has three kids and a fourth on the way. His wife teaches in Meridian.

The pay hike rejection was largely symbolic, too; it saves the state a mere $180,000.

It was an easy vote for Rep. Eric Anderson, a Priest Lake contractor and developer who dissolved his business a few weeks ago, in part because he had no business and in part because the Legislature was more important to him.

"It was a monumental decision," Anderson said. "I can't let people down."

Anderson's wife returned to work as an assistant manager at a clothing store.

Sandpoint Republican Sen. Shawn Keough is not sure what to expect with her job when the session winds down. Keough works for an association that is supported by the timber industry, which is virtually at a standstill in North Idaho.

"It's safe to say I'm worried about when the loggers will have a job and whether I'll have a job," she said.

Rep. Lenore Barrett, who yearns for the heyday of the Manhattan Project when shovel-ready meant locating a chunk of uranium and digging, is not too worried about the downturn.

"When you start out poor, you don't go any further than that," the Challis Republican said. "You gotta roll with the punches, sorry."

And then, as she warmed up a bit, Barrett finally found an appropriately folksy maxim, punctuated by a stabbing motion with her umbrella: "Chicken one day, feathers the next."

For all this identifying with the average folk, Idaho legislators are not average. They wield an enormous amount of power over the state economy and over state workers' purse strings—two areas that they have barely addressed this session.

Geddes and House Speaker Lawerence Denney, of Midvale, told the press that they are not really interested in an economic stimulus package coming from Washington, D.C., and will carry on budgeting as if it did not exist.

"My position is that the most prudent thing for the Legislature to do is move forward with no expectations of stimulus," Geddes said.

Nor is the Republican leadership of the House or Senate interested in hearing from state employees about pay and benefits, which according to a state government report, lags 15 percent behind "market" rates. Denney and Geddes asked that the joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee not meet until further notice; the governor is recommending no pay raise for state workers, and has suggested changes to their benefits package but not revealed what they may be. State employees, as well as teachers, may face pay cuts too.

"Right now, they're concerned about their jobs a lot more that they're concerned about the CEC," said Sen. John Andreason, co-chairman of the CEC Committee.

All of these out-of-work or soon to be out-of-work lawmakers disprove another well-worn folksy maxim around the Capitol Annex: the belt-tightening metaphor.

They will all do fine during the session, earning their housing stipend and eating on lobbyists' dimes. But come spring, when lawmakers go home, they will all scramble to find jobs so they can keep eating chicken—which is always preferable to tightening of belts.

They prescribe unto us feathers and belts when what Idaho families more often do in times of famine is seek out new revenue streams.

One could say that's unstable.